On Oct. 24, Champaign County Health Care Consumers and Planned Parenthood of East Central Illinois co-sponsored an event to distribute free packs of emergency contraception pills, otherwise known as “EC,” or by the commercial name Plan B.

Free EC Day isn’t exactly news anymore, but it’s still worth talking about. As the Health Care Consumers reported at their Women’s Health Task Force meeting on Nov. 11, 180 people received packs of Plan B that day. Many of us, on the other hand, continue to be at least somewhat unprepared.

The kind of event that creates a need for emergency contraception -– unprotected sex, contraception failure, or sexual assault – will likely happen without warning, like any emergency. And like any emergency response, Plan B is more effective the sooner it’s used.

It isn’t necessary for all women of reproductive age to have packs of Plan B on hand at all times. It does help to know in advance, however, what to do if you needed or wanted to get it. Plan B is pretty easy to find in Champaign-Urbana almost any day of the year, aside from major holidays, regardless of age, insurance status, or income.

Here’s how Plan B works:

Plan B is basically a larger dose of regular prescription birth control pills. It comes in a packet of two pills, the second one to be taken 12 hours after the first.

Like the pill, it does not terminate pregnancy. Instead, it works to avoid it altogether by preventing ovulation, by making sure a released egg isn’t fertilized, or by stopping a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. If pregnancy has already occurred, Plan B won’t harm the fetus or the mother. It doesn’t have serious side effects, either (though it could cause nausea or vomiting, breast tenderness, period irregularities, or stomach pain).

The thing is that Plan B has to be used within 72 hours of an occurrence of unprotected sex to be effective. And the likelihood of it working increases the earlier a woman takes it.

Plan B is available to all women by a doctor’s prescription, but it’s also available over the counter for women 18 and older. And it has been since August 2006, when the FDA approved its OTC status. (Interestingly enough, this status also makes it available for men over the age of 18 to purchase over the counter, as well.)

If a woman is old enough, she can go to any pharmacy, as soon as she needs it, and just ask for it. Pharmacies aren’t legally required to keep Plan B in stock, but according to a phone survey conducted by the Health Care Consumers in October, more than 20 pharmacies in Champaign-Urbana do have supplies of EC. (Call the Health Care Consumers at 217-352-6533 for the survey’s results and their list of major C-U pharmacies’ Plan B prices.)

The cost ranges from approximately $37 to $47 per dose, depending on where Plan B is purchased. If that’s more than you can afford, or if you’re 17 or younger and don’t want to or can’t request a prescription from a family doctor, you can always go to Planned Parenthood, which offers easy access to EC for a maximum price of $32.

Women of any age can get EC from Planned Parenthood without an exam, and regardless of whether they’re Planned Parenthood clients. A minimal amount of paperwork is required. Discounts are available, with proof of income (such as a pay stub) or a statement of unemployment. For any woman with access to a credit card, online requests for Plan B can be placed by visiting Planned Parenthood’s website about EC [http://www.plannedparenthood.org/east-central-illinois/get-ec-online.htm].

While Plan B is the only form of EC pills currently available in the United States, it’s not the only kind of emergency contraception out there. IUD insertion is an option, too, but would require an appointment with a doctor or a visit to Planned Parenthood.

There are also ways of taking regular birth control pills as EC; contact your doctor or Planned Parenthood for more information about this option, as well. In fact, any questions you have about emergency contraception ultimately should be directed to these sources.

If you have questions about access to EC such as where to obtain Plan B, or where to file a complaint if a request for it has been denied, contact the Champaign County Health Care Consumers at
217-333-6533.

For more information:
Champaign County Health Care Consumers [www.healthcareconsumers.org]
Planned Parenthood of East Central Illinois [www.plannedparenthood.org/east-central-illinois]
Plan B [www.go2planb.com/ForConsumers/TakingPlanB/faqs.aspx#AL5]
Information from the FDA on Plan B’s over-the-counter status:
[www.fda.gov/cder/drug/infopage/planB/default.htm]