The investigation comes about four months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that gave women the right to an abortion. Now laws vary state to state, with some outlawing access to abortion under nearly all circumstances. In Illinois, abortion remains legal.
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Since the ruling, and as pharmacies have navigated new laws in some states, reports have emerged of pharmacists at Walgreens and CVS locations denying patients contraceptives, as well as methotrexate, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis that can also end ectopic pregnancies, and misoprostol, a stomach ulcer medication commonly prescribed before IUD insertions.
The controversy has led to public complaints for both companies. For Walgreens, complaints led to the hashtag #BoycottWalgreens trending on Twitter in July. Not even two weeks later, Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth put pressure on Walgreens to revise a policy they said allows Walgreens employees to refuse to sell contraceptives to customers based on workers' religious or moral beliefs.
Walgreens previously told Crain’s it allows employees to refuse to sell contraceptives to customers if it conflicts with their personal beliefs, and the workers are required to refer customers to another employee who can complete the transaction. The policy abides by federal law under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, race, color, sex and national origin, Walgreens said.
In a statement today, Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said the company is cooperating with the HHS’ investigation about complaints at its stores.
“We have taken steps to comply with applicable laws,” Engerman said. “Our pharmacists will continue to work closely with prescribers as necessary, to fill lawful, clinically appropriate prescriptions. Our top priority is ensuring our patients have access to the medications they need from pharmacists they know and trust.”
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Walgreens had about 8,965 stores as of Aug. 31, and filled 1.2 billion prescriptions in 2021, according to its website.
Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS did not answer Crain’s questions about its policy today, but reportedly has a policy similar to Walgreens'.
CVS, which has more than 9,900 retail locations in all 50 states, nearly 70 of which are in Chicago, said in a statement to Crain’s that it’s committed to supporting women’s healthcare.”
“Our highest priority is ensuring safe and timely access to medications. However, laws in select states restrict the dispensing of medications that may be prescribed for the purpose of inducing an abortion. Our pharmacists, like other healthcare providers, are caught in the middle on this issue. In certain cases, they may face criminal charges for dispensing medications for this purpose. We will cooperate with any government inquiry on this complex issue.”
CVS manages and fills about 2.5 billion prescriptions a year.
It's not known what the other companies are that Becerra referred to in his tweet. HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In July, the agency issued guidance to about 60,000 retail pharmacies that take federal financial assistance from Medicare and Medicaid payments. The agency said these establishments must protect patients’ rights to access reproductive healthcare from a pharmacy, which includes prescription contraceptives.
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Chicago Business.