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Saturday, July 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pharmacy board may be rethinking rule change

Seattle Times staff reporter

The state Board of Pharmacy has delayed adopting controversial new rules that would make Washington one of only a handful of states to clearly permit pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for personally held moral reasons.

The board's decision Thursday follows months of public debate over the proposed rules, including vocal criticism from Gov. Christine Gregoire and women's advocates who were alarmed that the rules might hinder patient access to emergency contraceptives.

The board postponed until Aug. 31 any vote to move ahead with the proposed changes. But more significant, it signaled that the pharmacy board may be rethinking its original support for the draft rules.

"The board is still considering the language as to whether they want to make any revisions," said Steve Saxe, who was the pharmacy board's executive director until two weeks ago.

The controversy was ignited in January when the Washington State Pharmacy Association, a private trade group, proposed that the state board spell out the responsibilities for so-called "conscientious objectors" who don't want to fill prescriptions that violate their personal religious or moral beliefs.

Under state law, any person or medical facility has the right to refuse to perform abortions. Arguably, that means pharmacists could refuse to dispense the abortion pill RU-486, said Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center. But Stone argues that the exemption doesn't apply to the so-called "Plan B" emergency contraceptive. The drug prevents pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of sex, but some groups argue that it is tantamount to abortion.

Another state law governing health insurance allows health-care providers, including pharmacists, to refuse to provide a service "if they object to so doing for reason of conscience or religion." But it's disputed whether that gives all pharmacists broad rights to refuse prescriptions.

"We believe and the governor believes that pharmacists have the duty to dispense lawfully written prescriptions," Stone said.

The state board has received nearly 2,500 letters, calls and e-mails about the draft rules, and all but 33 have been opposed to them, Saxe said.

Rod Shafer, executive director of the pharmacy association, argues that "probably not very many" prescriptions are turned away by pharmacists for moral reasons. Nonetheless, Shafer said any rule adopted by the board "needs to allow for exceptions for religious beliefs."

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Donna Dockter, one of the pharmacy board's seven members, said requiring pharmacists to fill every prescription "is not always in the interest of the patients."

"I don't think a regulatory board should be dictating that," she said.

Dockter, owner of Sand Point Clinic Pharmacy, said she has filled prescriptions for Plan B. But she contends that pharmacists should have the right to use their judgment whether to dispense a prescription. For example, if a pharmacist suspects that a depressed patient plans to overdose on a prescribed drug, the pharmacist ought to be able to refuse to fill it.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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