Medical card holders to get morning-after pill direct from pharmacies
The morning-after pill is to be made directly available to medical card holders through pharmacies.
Health Minister Simon Harris is to announce today that they will no longer have to first visit a GP for a prescription.
The minister's announcement, to be made at the annual meeting of the Irish Pharmacy Union, follows calls to end the two-tier system in place for access to the emergency contraception.
Five years ago restrictions on its availability were lifted for private patients after it was decided it could be purchased over the counter from pharmacies.
Pharmacists have also lobbied for changes to be made for medical card holders, saying they are healthcare professionals with the skills and competence to dispense the medicine to patients.
They are able to provide a consultation to women in a private area of the pharmacy and give advice on its administration. The medication can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or a failure of other contraception.
The sooner the contraception is taken the better. There are no serious side-effects to the medication and it does not cause an abortion.
The easier access for medical card holders is due to come in to effect in July.
Mr Harris is of the view that this has been an unfair anomaly and a barrier to timely treatment for women who are medical card holders.
He believes that all women, irrespective of their means, should have the same access to emergency contraception when they need it.
The current arrangement did not serve women with medical cards well.
Pharmacists have said that their own surveys found that 77pc of consultations with women seeking the medicine take place within 24 hours of unprotected sex. More than a fifth of those surveyed were medical card holders.
It meant that one on five women who could access it free were nonetheless willing to go directly to the pharmacist and pay for it.
The pharmacists argued it was not fair that a medicine that is known to be most effective within 24 hours could not be accessed immediately free of charge by medical card holders.
They said the delay was a huge concern, given the potentially life-changing consequences of an unplanned pregnancy.
They insisted it amounted to discrimination of medical card patients over private patients.
A study published in 2010 showed that of 1,696 women who received the emergency pill within 72 hours of sex, 37 became pregnant.
Of 203 women who took the pill between 72 and 120 hours after unprotected sex, there were three pregnancies.
A majority of pharmacists reported they have been asked for the morning-after pill since it became available over the counter.
A survey found that the age of patients asking for the medication ranged from 16 to 40, with younger patients aged 20 to 25 among those most commonly looking to purchase it.
The average age of the women buying the emergency contraception was 23.
It is cited as one of the methods available to reduce crisis pregnancies.