Legal fight over emergency contraceptives drags on

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Six years after state regulators clarified that pharmacies must dispense emergency contraceptives when asked, one pharmacy owner in Olympia continues to fight the rules, citing religious reasons.

The case is still in federal appeals court, delayed by legal wrangling over the requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act, The Olympian reported Saturday.

Washington's rules require that pharmacies stock and dispense drugs that are in demand. The state adopted the dispensing rules in 2007 following reports that some women had been denied access to Plan B, which is effective at preventing pregnancy if a woman takes it within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

Kevin Stormans and his family, who own Ralph's Thriftway Pharmacy, sued in 2007 to overturn the state emergency contraceptive rule. They won a trial in federal court in Tacoma in 2012.

But the state Department of Health and Pharmacy Commission appealed the decision, which also awarded legal fees of more than $2 million that the state would have to pay if it ultimately loses.

The case was moving toward possible closure in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco last month but is now on hold, The Olympian reported.

The 9th Circuit wants to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court hears two legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that health insurance policies cover female birth control for free, the newspaper reported. Contraceptives fall under the health law's requirement that insurers cover preventive care.

The central legal issue is whether a private business can assert a right to exercise religious conscience in not following the state law.

The Stormanses "have had a tremendous burden in not knowing if their pharmacy would be closed and have enormous legal fees," argued Kristen Waggoner, part of a legal team representing the family.

Joyce Roper, senior attorney with the attorney general's office, said the case for the state has never been about Plan B alone, but about all legally prescribed drugs.

"The concern is a free exercise claim would allow a pharmacy owner to decide they are not going to provide medications needed by patients based on the pharmacy owner's beliefs when it may be necessary for the patient," she said.

But U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton found in 2012 that the state singled out religious objectors for failing to dole out medications. In his decision, the judge did not strike down Washington's rules but said the way they were applied to the plaintiffs in this case was unconstitutional.

The state has not been getting complaints against other pharmacies for failing to dispense medications.

Kevin Stormans, the family's spokesman, could not be reached by the newspaper for comment.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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