OLYMPIA, Wash. — An independent supermarket operator here is suing the state of Washington over a requirement to carry and dispense any valid prescription, a rule that is primarily aimed at emergency contraceptives.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court at the end of last month by Stormans, the owner of Ralph's Thriftway, in dispute of a state rule that went into effect July 26.
The rule puts pharmacies in charge of ensuring that customers get their prescriptions filled. If an individual pharmacist won't fill a prescription, the pharmacy owner must make sure another pharmacist is available to do so.
If a drug is out of stock, the patient can ask the pharmacy to find another source, and the pharmacy is obligated to restock the drug.
“We have some moral and religious convictions against stocking Plan B,” said Kevin Stormans, vice president of the company. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also include pharmacists Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen.
The rule covers any valid prescription, not just emergency contraceptives, although its passage was sparked by complaints that some pharmacists refused to fill Plan B prescriptions, according to the Washington State Department of Health. The rule makes an exception for “potential drug therapy contraindications.”
For Stormans, a family-owned company that has two supermarkets, along with other food-related businesses, this ruling has far-reaching implications. “The issue that the business community should be concerned about is that the government is telling us we have to carry a product,” Stormans said. “That is intruding on private business and should be something the industry and customers alike are aware of.”
While Stormans can understand the restriction of certain products in specific situations, this rule is one he hopes to overturn, he said.
Plan B, manufactured by Barr Pharmaceuticals, Woodcliff Lake, N.J., first came to the attention of Kevin Stormans when he received a call about a year ago asking if either of the company's two supermarket pharmacies carried the product. “I didn't know, so I called the pharmacy, and we discovered that just like any supermarket product, we had never sold it, so we never stocked it.”
After researching the product, Stormans, along with his father and brother, decided as owners of the pharmacies that they did not want to start stocking the product due to the possibility that it could prevent a fertilized egg from being implanted in a woman's uterus, one of many possible outcomes of the drug.
“We had several groups boycott us and picket stores,” he said. The Washington Human Rights Commission, one of the government organizations behind the new rule, stated: “It is the position of the WHRC that allowing pharmacists to discriminate, based on their personal religious beliefs, against women and others trying to fill lawful prescriptions would be discriminatory, unlawful, and against good public policy and the public interest.”
In addition, a complaint was filed with the Washington Board of Pharmacy against one of Ralph's Thriftway pharmacists, but since it was the owners refusing to stock the drug, the pharmacist was not found in violation of any rules.
A complaint was next filed against the retailer, and that is still pending, Stormans said.
In the meantime, the rule was adopted by the board of pharmacy following negotiations held by the governor's office, and public hearings that included over 21,000 written comments, according state health department.
Before the new rule, the pharmacy board's conscience clause gave pharmacists the choice not to dispense a particular drug, Stormans said.
No court date has been set for the lawsuit.