New Brunswick women will be able to get abortion pill free of charge

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New Brunswick, which has lagged behind most other provinces in offering access to abortion, will make the abortion pill Mifegymiso available to women free of charge, Health Minister Victor Boudreau announced Tuesday.

Saying the government wants to remove financial barriers to a woman's right to choose, Boudreau announced any woman with a valid medicare card will be eligible to receive Mifegymiso at no cost.

The abortion pill can only be obtained by doctor's prescription, and only 24 doctors and pharmacists in New Brunswick have completed or registered for the training required to prescribe and dispense it, respectively, according to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

Boudreau said his statement Tuesday was a "call-out" to interested doctors to get the necessary training, so the drug can be offered as soon as possible. 

"As Mifegymiso becomes more widely available throughout the country and New Brunswick, we commit to working with physicians, as well as pharmaceutical distributors, to ensure timely and universal coverage for all New Brunswick women," Boudreau said. 

It could take several months before the Health Department gets the program going, because of the need to negotiate the best possible price for the drug, Boudreau said.

The government wants to provide the free coverage up front rather than ask women to pay for it and seek reimbursement. 

Recently on market

The drug, also known as RU-486, went on the market in January, about a year and a half after Health Canada authorized its use for the medical termination of a pregnancy up to 49 days.

"We still feel the safest way to provide for surgical abortions is within the hospitals," Boudreau said. "That's something that when we look now at the three sites it's offered in the province of New Brunswick the feeling is there is enough ... capacity in the system currently," said Boudreau.

"The abortion pill is yet another option altogether."

New Brunswick, which for years had a reputation for low or non-existent access to abortion, is the first province to announce universal coverage for the abortion pill, supporters say.

"Your government has eliminated barriers to reproductive health that were in place for three decades and is committed to doing more," Boudreau said in the news release.

- Transformative abortion drug not making inroads into New Brunswick 

Beth Lyons, executive director of the New Brunswick Women's Council, applauded the province's decision to offer universal coverage off Mifegymiso.

"This is really encouraging and a very positive announcement," said Lyons.

First in country

Although the actual roll-out of the pill has been quite slow across the country, Lyons said New Brunswick is the first province to announce universal coverage such as this.

"We are a province that, on lots of reproductive rights issues, has often been lagging behind other jurisdictions," she said.

"And to see us come out to be the first to make a commitment to universal funding is really encouraging."

Lyons said the New Brunswick Women's Council has known since the drug was approved it would cost roughly $300 to access, which she called "quite the barrier." 

As a result, the council advised government to find public funding to cover the drug. 

"This exceeds what we hoped they would come up with," she said.  "We're hopefully setting the standard for access around this, rather than lagging behind."

Lyons said the policy will be particularly helpful for women in rural communities and those struggling economically, without private coverage for prescription drugs.

"I see this as a real move to make sure that one's financial situation isn't a barrier to exercise their right to choose," she said. "It's an option that any woman or trans [transgender] person could avail themselves of."

Mifegymiso was approved for use in Canada under the following conditions:

- It must be prescribed by a physician who has completed a training course and is registered with the manufacturer.

- An ultrasound is required to confirm the gestational age.

- It cannot be prescribed beyond the gestational age of 49 days.

- It can only be provided to the patient by a physician.

Access still a worry

Lyons said there were still concerns about whether physicians and pharmacists in New Brunswick will take the training they need to prescribe the drug.

Before getting a prescription, a woman must have an ultrasound to make sure she is within the window of time the drug label allows for use of the drug.

But timely access to ultrasounds can be a challenge in the province, she said, but Boudreau was optimistic this wouldn't be a problem.

"The physician would identify this as a priority and the ultrasound would happen rather quickly," he said. "The physician has the power … to do that."