July 21, 2020

Just over a year ago, IJ launched a groundbreaking case challenging Texas’ law banning doctors from dispensing medications to their patients. As we explained then, “doctor dispensing” is a safe and effective way to increase access to routine medications and is already permitted in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Now, IJ is working to bring doctor dispensing to Montana.

In Montana, unlike all those other states, doctors are banned from dispensing unless they work more than 10 miles from a pharmacy. There are a few exceptions: for example, if they are dispensing “occasionally” or “in an emergency.” But these exceptions are so vague or narrow that the practical result of the system is that doctors do not offer medication to their patients.

This is a travesty because doctor dispensing benefits patients. Up to 30% of prescriptions go unfilled due to factors like cost and inconvenience, resulting in complications for patients and billions of dollars in avoidable expenses for the broader health care system. Dispensing offers doctors a way to help alleviate these problems by providing patients with immediate access to the medications they need—often at a fraction of the price pharmacies offer.

Not only that, but research shows that it’s just as safe for doctors to dispense medications as it is for pharmacies. There’s no reason to think it would be any different in Montana. Doctors there are just as qualified as their peers across the country to dispense safely and ethically. And doctors who work near pharmacies are just as qualified as their more rural peers to provide this service.

The truth is that Montana’s ban has nothing to do with protecting patients. But it does serve another purpose: protecting pharmacies from competition. Under the law, pharmacies enjoy a 10-mile zone of protection from competition by the nearest doctor, which explains why the Montana Pharmacy Association and Montana Board of Pharmacy worked to get the ban passed in the first place—and have lobbied to keep it in place ever since.

Montana’s protectionist ban does not sit well with Dr. Carol Bridges, Dr. Todd Bergland, or Dr. Cara Harrop, each of whom would like to dispense routine medications, at cost, to their patients. All three are family doctors who regularly prescribe medications for common issues like high cholesterol, stomach bugs, and seasonal allergies. And all three feel their patients would benefit if they could offer direct access to the medications they prescribe, right when they prescribe them.

That’s why they are taking their cause to court. In June, the doctors and IJ filed a constitutional lawsuit to strike down Montana’s protectionist ban. We believe Montana’s Constitution, like Texas’, provides strong protections for economic liberty. And we look forward to showing that these protections apply to licensed medical professionals in Montana, too.

Keith Neely is an IJ attorney.

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