What to do if CVS, the nation's largest pharmacy, refuses to fill your birth control

Sara Edwards

People who have had their birth control prescriptions or condom purchases denied by large pharmacies continue to flood social media with their stories under the hashtags #BoycottWalgreens and ##CVSDeniesCare.

The issue has come to the fore as America grapples with what reproductive health care looks like in a post-Roe v. Wade nation.

But even before the Dobbs decision overturned a federal right to an abortion, some states already had passed laws on whether pharmacists can deny a prescription or items like condoms because of religious beliefs or moral objection.

Other states leave it up to the discretion of the pharmacy location, and some don't require objecting providers to provide patients with alternate pharmacists or care. Many of those laws go as far back as 1992, when Congress passed a suite of laws under the Church Amendment. 

So what can you do if a pharmacist won't fulfill your birth control prescription because it goes against their faith? Post about it on social media? Call your health provider? Just ignore it and try somewhere else? What do you do?

Are pharmacists legally allowed to deny my prescription because of their beliefs?

In some cases, yes.

Six states allow pharmacists to deny prescriptions like birth control or Plan B if they have a moral or religious objection. Those states are Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi and South Dakota – and they don't require pharmacists to find an alternate way to fill any denied prescriptions elsewhere.

How it started:Walgreens employees allegedly denying birth control, condom sales

What the policy says:CVS Pharmacy has similar policy to Walgreens, allows pharmacists to deny birth control

Eight states have laws that require pharmacists to provide care, despite objections: California, Nevada, Washington, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey. 

Seven states allow pharmacists to deny the prescription but require them to refer patients to another pharmacy. Those states are Oregon, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware.

Mara Gandal-Powers is the director of birth control access at the National Women's Law Center. She said pharmacies have to abide by state regulations and federal laws while providing accessible care.

"If you are a pharmacy that has condoms on the shelf, you can't refuse people their birth control," she said. 

What do I do if a pharmacist won't give me my birth control because it's against their beliefs?

Powers said the best thing to do in the moment is ask if there's anyone else working, like a manager or other pharmacist, who could take over. 

"Most (large pharmacy chains) have policies to deal with this, and if those policies are working well, you probably will never even hear that from a pharmacist," she said. 

In the instance that a birth control prescription or the purchase of condoms or other reproductive products is denied because of the employee's beliefs, Powers said there are many ways to report the incident.

"Oftentimes people post their complaints on social media, but for something like birth control, you may not want to go public," Powers said. "When this happens, there's a lot of shame and embarrassment that maybe you were in the wrong, but you weren't. You're there to get your birth control."

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How to file a complaint against your pharmacy

If you have been denied care because of a provider's beliefs, there are several avenues of recourse.

Patients can file a complaint with the state pharmacy board, which is easily searchable on Google. It is also important to alert the pharmacy's corporate headquarters about what happened.

Powers also suggested filing a complaint with the Federal Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services on their website. You can fill that out here.

"It's really important for people to know that just because (the pharmacist) says no, that doesn't mean that's the end all for you," Powers said. "You can ask for a referral to another pharmacy, which is a pain and you shouldn't have to do, but it's really important to get your birth control when you need it."

Health and Human Services Office reminds pharmacies to not discriminate

The issues with providers refusing to provide birth control, condoms and other products used for reproductive services may ramp up post-Dobbs, some experts said. Government agencies are attempting to get ahead of that as quickly as possible.

The Federal Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services also created guidance for retail pharmacies to help ensure they provide access for reproductive care and services after President Joe Biden's executive order ensuring reproductive health care access.

According to a news release from the office, the guidance makes it clear that pharmacies are "prohibited under law from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability in their programs and activities," which includes prescribed medications.

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"We are committed to ensuring that everyone can access health care, free of discrimination,” said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “This includes access to prescription medications for reproductive health and other types of care.”

The guide reaffirms that pharmacies cannot discriminate against pregnant people or people who have a birth control prescription from their health provider, which are both a form of sex discrimination under federal law.

"The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights is responsible for protecting the rights of women and pregnant people in their ability to access care that is free from discrimination," the guide said. "This includes their ability to access reproductive health care, including prescription medication from their pharmacy, free from discrimination."