By Elizabeth Thompson

A bill that would make post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), birth control and testosterone more easily available is on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk — but while some advocates celebrate the bill’s passage, opponents argue against controversial vaccine language added to the bill.

The bill came into controversy after Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) added a provision requiring young people to get parental permission before receiving the vaccines that have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, such as the COVID-19 vaccine.

The House passed the bill Thursday 106-5, with five Democrats voting “no” after the Senate gave it unanimous approval Tuesday.

House Bill 96 would allow pharmacists to dispense, deliver and administer certain medications, including PEP, nicotine replacement therapy, self-administered oral and transdermal contraceptives, prenatal vitamins, glucagon, testosterone and vitamin B12 as well as vaccinations or immunizations “recommended or required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the bill says. 

The bill also requires health care providers to “obtain written consent from a parent or legal guardian prior to administering any vaccine that has been granted emergency use authorization and is not yet fully approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to an individual under 18 years of age.”

This would include all current vaccinations against COVID-19, although the FDA has accelerated its timetable to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines by Labor Day or sooner. 

Krawiec said the amendment was in response to her constituents’ concerns about their children receiving a vaccine approved for emergency use authorization.

“Parents know their children the best,” Krawiec said in a news release Tuesday. “They, not the government, should have the ultimate say when it comes to their child’s health.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), who was an original sponsor of the bill, removed her name from the bill and voted against it Thursday due to the amendment. She did not speak on the House floor Thursday since she may have been exposed to coronavirus recently.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she told WRAL. “There are a lot of vaccine skeptics out there. My opinion is we need more people vaccinated, not fewer.”

Rep. Wayne Sasser (R-Albemarle), primary sponsor of the bill said it had “no opposition” on the House floor Thursday.

“We’ve worked with some changes that they made over in the Senate,” Sasser said. “All the stakeholders are on board.”

Expanded access to key medication

Lee Storrow, executive director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, said the bill’s passage is a move in the right direction in expanding access to PEP, an oral medication one must take 72 hours after possible exposure to HIV.

“People who need post-exposure prophylaxis are finding themselves in an emergency situation, and they need to get access to the medication in up to 72 hours,” Storrow said. “There’s strong agreement from even medical providers that pharmacists need to be able to dispense this medication to folks.”

If the bill is signed into law, North Carolina would join states like New York, California, Colorado and Virginia in making this medication more available.

“There’s a real desire in the public health space and for those of us working in HIV and Hepatitis C and communicable diseases to make sure that we learn lessons from these last two years,” Storrow said. 

He said that it’s important to grab the initiative, so “that we don’t find ourselves in a worse place with so many other public health issues, after these last two years because we’ve taken our eye off the ball of important priorities around HIV.”

The bill would also allow pharmacists to administer testosterone injections to people 18 and older and deliver, distribute and administer birth control.

Susanna Birdsong, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said “it would be great” if the bill also had provisions to help people better afford birth control.

“But this is a good first step,” Birdsong said. “And it definitely increases availability and access, and it provides another way, another outlet for people to access birth control.”

Addressing disparities

Despite being home to research giants Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina ranked 33rd in America’s Health Rankings by the United Health Foundation.

While there is at least one pharmacy in every North Carolina county, Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett) said on the Senate floor Tuesday, there are five counties without a family physician, 20 without a pediatrician, 26 without an OB-GYN and 30 without a psychiatrist.

“House Bill 96 is a combination of multiple groups that came together to help expand access to health care for citizens across our state,” Burgin said, including the North Carolina Association of Pharmacists, the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, the North Carolina Medical Society, North Carolina Medical Board, the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians, the North Carolina Pediatric Society, North Carolina Obstetrical and Gynecological Society and the North Carolina Psychiatric Association.

Now the bill is on it’s way to Cooper’s desk, who would not say whether he would sign the bill at the Coronavirus Task Force briefing on August 4.

Cooper said the language of the amended bill “concerns me” during a tour of the Forsyth Department of Public Health vaccination site, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.

“We’re going to examine that legislation as it goes through the process,” Cooper said at the Task Force briefing. “It does some important things that we know that we need to do, so we’re going to continue to look at it.”

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Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...