Certain medications could soon be available without prescription

by Brooke Hart
NBC News

The plan debated today at the FDA would let patients go straight to their pharmacists for many drugs now available by prescription only.

A potential new class of behind-the-counter drugs could include birth control pills, cholesterol drugs, and migraine medicine.

"That'll be great, because it'll make it much easier. It would be more economical," says pharmacy customer Alvin James.

This system, now used in almost a dozen countries, would require that pharmacists play a bigger role in talking to patients about their needs and drug risks.

Pharmacists are on board with that.

"Increased access, increased appropriate use of medicines, and at the end of the day better health outcomes is something that ultimately benefits consumers nation wide," says James Appleby, COO, American Pharmacists Association.

But many do worry about making drug decisions apart from doctors.
"You gotta be exact on that, because if you tell them something else, then they give you another prescription thinking that they're following your diagnosis. That may not be too good," says pharmacy customer Andrew Mealy.

"How do you know what your cholesterol level is, and if you need the drugs unless you've seen the doctor?" wonders Nanne Eliot, another customer.

Those concerns drive opposition to the plan from the American Medical Association.

Health watchdog groups will testify today about the broader effects.

"I think a lot of consumer groups see both a gain and a real danger so it has to be done right," says Bill Vaughan of the Consumers Union.

For instance, insurance companies might drop coverage of drugs because they're no longer dispensed by prescription only.

At the FDA today, one health watchdog group will advocate trying the plan in a few state, before rolling it out nationwide.