After attorney general's letter, Walgreens won't carry abortion medication in Alaska
Mar. 5—Walgreens will not dispense abortion drugs in Alaska despite the fact that abortion access in the state remains legal, after Republican Attorney General Treg Taylor signed on to a letter urging the drugstore giant against doing so.
Alaska is one of several states where Walgreens will not dispense mifepristone, the first drug used in a two-part medical abortion. Walgreens executives made the decision after 20 Republican attorneys general, including Taylor, sent a letter cautioning the company against following new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration to allow abortion drugs to be dispensed in pharmacies and by mail.
Similar letters signed by Taylor were sent to CVS, Albertsons, Kroger, Rite Aid, Walmart and Costco. In the letters, Republican attorneys general argued that shipments of mifepristone run afoul of a 19th century law that prohibited sending items used in abortion through the mail.
A spokesperson for Walgreens told the Associated Press that it plans to begin dispensing the pill where it can legally do so, but not in the 20 states that signed on to the letter.
This is not the first action Taylor, Alaska's attorney general appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, has taken to limit access to medication abortion, which makes up around one-third of abortions performed in the state. Taylor was one of 22 Republican attorneys general who signed on to a brief last month supporting an anti-abortion group's suit demanding a federal judge in Texas to revoke the FDA's approval of mifepristone. A ruling on the case, which could make mifepristone illegal nationwide, is expected soon.
[Earlier coverage: FDA decision could increase access to abortion pills across Alaska]
Mifepristone, which blocks a hormone necessary for pregnancy development, is prescribed up to 13 weeks into a pregnancy. Misoprostol, the second pill, is already available at retail pharmacies.
Rose O'Hara-Jolley, director with Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates of Alaska, on Friday called Taylor's actions "a major concern" and "a complete and total abuse of power."
"Access in Alaska remains a real issue and the fact that Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor wants to make that harder for the people of Alaska is disgusting and immoral," O'Hara-Jolley said in an emailed statement.
Earlier this year, before the lawsuit was filed, the FDA had updated its regulations to allow mifepristone to be dispensed at chain and local pharmacies and through the mail. Previously, the FDA had allowed mifepristone to be dispensed only through certain clinics or medical providers' offices, or through a few select mail-order pharmacies.
Following that announcement, Walgreens and CVS were among the first large chain stores to say they'd seek certification to dispense mifepristone.
In Alaska, advocates said earlier this year that the regulatory shift has the potential to expand abortion access across the state, especially in rural communities.
[Abortion access in Alaska: What current regulations are, how many are performed and who the average patient is]
It could allow Alaskans in more remote parts of the state to seek a telehealth appointment with a provider licensed to practice in the state and get a prescription for abortion pills, and have them delivered by mail instead of needing to travel to a clinic.
It was unclear as of Friday how broadly the FDA change was affecting abortion access across Alaska, or whether other pharmacies might respond similarly to Walgreens executives.
Access to dispensing the drug is not automatic; each individual pharmacy or chain is required to review and agree to an updated Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies agreement that lays out how to safely prescribe and dispense a medication.
Reached by phone this week, pharmacists at a handful of pharmacies and chains in Alaska including Safeway, Fred Meyer and Costco said they currently had mifepristone in stock or were able to order it for patients with prescriptions.
[Abortion access in Alaska: What regulations are, how many are performed and who the average patient is]
In Alaska, it's legal for patients to be prescribed abortion pills via telehealth appointment and then receive the pills by mail, Sylvan Robb, director of the state Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing, said in an email earlier this year.
But Alaska Department of Law spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said in an email on Friday that "Alaska law requires that only licensed physicians may perform abortions" and that existing statute "prohibit(s) pharmacy sales of abortion drugs directly to patients." Sullivan did not provide clarification when asked about the apparent contradiction between that law and the regulation cited by Robb.
Sullivan said the state had not heard back from any of the pharmacies other than Walgreens that had received letters calling on them not to follow the updated FDA regulations. Company executives from Walmart, CVS, Albertsons, Kroger, Rite Aid and Costco did not respond Friday to requests for comment. Rite Aid Corp. told the Associated Press on Friday it was "monitoring the latest federal, state, legal and regulatory developments" and would keep evaluating its policies.
An ongoing lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood in late 2019 challenges the statute that says abortions can only be performed by a physician, and also seeks to allow advanced practice clinicians, including physician assistants, to provide abortions. A Superior Court judge in Anchorage issued a preliminary injunction in the case in November 2021 that authorizes clinicians to provide medication abortions, but the injunction would not "authorize the self-administration of a medication abortion by a pregnant woman," Sullivan said.
The case is scheduled to be heard later this month.
Sullivan said Taylor's decision to sign on to the letters to drugstores "will not change nor is it attempting to change the way abortion drugs are available to Alaskan women."