Washingtonians won big last week when the Ninth Circuit held that pharmacies can’t deny patients needed medication. In a victory for patients’ rights, the court unanimously upheld [PDF] the state’s rule requiring pharmacies to fill all lawfully prescribed medication in a timely manner.

Under the Washington rule, a pharmacist could refuse to fill a prescription so long as the pharmacy guaranteed that another pharmacist was available. In other words, the pharmacy must ensure that the patient gets the medication. A pharmacy and two pharmacists challenged the rule, claiming that filling certain prescriptions would violate their religious beliefs. The Ninth Circuit rightly considered the potential harmful effects on patients’ health that could result from allowing pharmacies to refuse to dispense prescriptions and held that Washington’s rule ensures that patients have “safe and timely access to their lawfully prescribed medications.”

This Ruling Isn’t Only Important for Washington

Pharmacy refusals harm patients. Evidence presented to the Ninth Circuit showed that that pharmacists and pharmacies have refused to fill a wide range of medication including diabetic syringes, insulin, HIV medications, emergency contraception, and Valium. Not only do these refusals threaten patients’ health, they can leave patients feeling shamed and humiliated.

Pharmacy refusalsAnd this isn’t only happening in Washington state. Pharmacy refusals have been happening around the country. In the case of Brittany Cartrett, two separate pharmacies in Georgia refused to fill her prescription that would help her complete a miscarriage. Making a difficult situation even worse, one of the pharmacists proceeded to publically berate her for needing the medication, even after she explained that she was suffering a miscarriage.

As the Ninth Circuit pointed out, the Washington rule protects all of these patients from the potentially harmful effects and humiliation of being denied their medication, especially when administration of the medication is time-sensitive, as with many HIV medications, emergency contraception, and miscarriage treatment.

The Court Got It Right

Rules like Washington’s protect patients’ rights by ensuring they get the medication they need when they need it. In an important step, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling confirms what we have been saying all along: providers’ personal beliefs should not trump a patient’s right to safe and timely health care.

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