New Illinois law makes it easier for women to get birth control

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CHICAGO — Women in Illinois will soon be able to get hormonal birth control directly from pharmacists, without first visiting doctors, under a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

A separate bill, also signed Thursday, aims to support telehealth services beyond the COVID-19 pandemic by requiring many health insurers to continue to cover telehealth and pay providers the same rates for virtual visits as in-person ones.

The birth control bill will allow pharmacists to dispense hormonal birth control, including pills, patches and vaginal rings, starting in January 2022.

Pharmacists will have to ask patients to first fill out medical screening forms. They may then give out up to 12 months of birth control. Health insurance should still cover birth control dispensed by pharmacists, under the law.

In passing the law, Illinois joins 16 other states and Washington, D.C., with similar requirements, according to the office of bill sponsor state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat.

Supporters of the bill praised it as key to expanding access to birth control throughout the state, during a news conference Thursday.

“Birth control is a basic health care service,” Bush said. “It should be treated as such and readily available for all.”

Pritzker noted that now, women who want birth control can face barriers such as finding a doctor, scheduling an appointment, paying for that appointment, finding child care during the appointment and transportation to it.

“More Illinoisans will have more control over the most personal decisions of their lives,” Pritzker said. “Right now in Illinois and most states, a woman looking to access birth control has to navigate a maze of requirements.”

To be allowed to dispense birth control without an individual doctor’s prescription, pharmacists will have to complete a training program related to the practice. Pharmacists will also have to provide counseling to patients and educate them about contraception.

Some opponents of the bill say they’re worried about the lack of physician care for patients, especially young women. The new law does not have any minimum age at which a patient can get birth control from a pharmacist.

“The primary concern we have with this is this would allow minors to go to a pharmacist to get birth control,” said Ralph Rivera, legislative director of the Illinois Pro-Family Alliance. He said the alliance worries that minors won’t get the medical follow-up they should.

Under the new law, pharmacists may use their “professional and clinical” judgment to determine when a patient should be referred to a doctor or other health care provider.

Meanwhile, the telehealth bill also aims to improve access to health care by extending requirements put in place during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before COVID-19, most Chicago-area health systems weren’t offering much telehealth. Health insurance companies typically didn’t reimburse health systems and doctors the same for virtual visits as they did for in-person ones.

To address that issue during the early months of the pandemic, Pritzker issued an executive order requiring health insurance companies regulated by the state to cover in-network virtual visits for patients and to pay doctors and other providers the same for telehealth as they would for in-person visits. But Pritzker had to keep renewing that executive order to keep those requirements in place.

The bill he signed Thursday permanently requires many insurance companies to cover telehealth. It also requires health insurance companies to permanently pay the same rates for virtual care as in-person care for treatment of mental health issues and substance use disorders.

For telehealth services addressing other medical issues, it extends the equal payment requirement until 2027. The law requires a study to be done on telehealth’s impact on access to care and health equity by 2026.

The bill only applies to health plans regulated by the state, not self-funded plans, which are the type often offered by large employers. The state also required telehealth to be covered for people on Medicaid during the pandemic, and the state department that oversees Medicaid is committed to continuing that coverage beyond the pandemic, according to the Illinois Health and Hospital Association.

The new law also prohibits health insurance companies from requiring a patient to have an in-person visit before a virtual one. It bars health insurance companies from requiring patients to have virtual visits, if they prefer in-person ones. And insurers cannot force doctors to offer telehealth visits, under the law.

Supporters say the new law will especially help people who face barriers to seeing doctors in-person, such as a lack of transportation or child care.

“Because of this bill we will see a continued expansion of telehealth in Illinois, which will result in better access, enhanced outcomes and reduced health disparities,” said hospital association President and CEO A.J. Wilhelmi.

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