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An over-the-counter birth control pill will be available to Americans nationwide

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A birth control pill that's available without a prescription is on its way to store shelves. It's called Opill, and NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to tell us all about it. Hey, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so, wait, is Opill, like, some totally new kind of birth control pill?

LUPKIN: No, it is not. The drug itself has actually been around for decades but, like all daily oral contraceptive pills, was only available with a prescription. So that's what's new here. This pill has FDA approval to be sold without a prescription, without a doctor's appointment, without a copay for that doctor's appointment. It's just going to be at your local grocery or convenience store by the condoms and pregnancy tests, and that will really help people access it.

CHANG: Yeah.

LUPKIN: Here's Triona Schmelter, an executive at Perrigo, which makes Opill.

TRIONA SCHMELTER: It doesn't require a doctor's visit, which means it doesn't require time off work or potentially a babysitter. And you can walk into any local retailer and, in the family planning section, pick it up at your convenience.

LUPKIN: It will also be available online and at opill.com, which I'm told will deliver it with discreet packaging. So it's for people who are between doctor's appointments, don't have access to reproductive health care. It's an option for people who want to keep their family planning choices private for whatever reason. Maybe you're a teenager and you haven't figured out how to talk to mom and dad, but you know you want to prevent pregnancy.

CHANG: And Opill is totally safe and effective to be used like that, right?

LUPKIN: Yeah. The FDA approved Opill last year after its panel of advisers voted unanimously on its approval. They said it's safe for women to figure out and use without a doctor's supervision. There are a few people who shouldn't take it - those with certain breast cancers, for instance. But for most people, it is safe, with the typical side effects you'd see from any birth control pill - cramps, bloating, that kind of thing. An over-the-counter birth control pill is also something the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ph) has advocated for for years. Here's Dr. Michael Belmonte, a fellow at the organization.

MICHAEL BELMONTE: This pill is made out of norgestrel, which is a progestin birth control pill that has been used outside of the country and has been in other birth control formulations. And so we have long-standing data to support the safety.

LUPKIN: This pill is 98% effective if taken correctly. It is a daily pill and should start working 48 hours after someone takes their first dose.

CHANG: This sounds great. OK, so how much will Opill cost if you just walk into a grocery store and buy it?

LUPKIN: So the recommended retail cost will be around $20 for a month's supply. Retailers could mark that up, but it will be available on opill.com for that price. And it's a little cheaper to buy it in bulk, so you can get a three-month supply or a six-month supply. Unfortunately, there is some data from the nonprofit health research organization KFF that shows a lot of women might not be willing or able to pay that.

CHANG: Yeah.

LUPKIN: So Perrigo is also launching a program to help people get Opill for free or at a reduced cost if they can't afford it. But those kinds of programs often involve a lot of hoops to jump through, so the company will really need to streamline that to reach some people.

CHANG: OK, but why is all of this happening now if Opill's been around for decades, as you say?

LUPKIN: Well, the substance has been around, but Opill hasn't been around. So these manufacturers were working on this FDA approval for nine years, gathering the right...

CHANG: Wow.

LUPKIN: ...Data to prove that women could safely take this pill on their own without a health care provider's help. And it was only last year that those efforts paid off, and they got that approval. So since then, I'm told it's been full steam ahead to get it to shelves, and that's where we are today. Doctors have told me that having this option is especially important in today's political climate. An over-the-counter option is a way for women to be in control of their reproductive health when they might otherwise not be able to.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sydney Lupkin. Thank you so much, Sydney.

LUPKIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF HI-TEK SONG, "ALL I NEED IS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.