Walgreen Co., the nation's largest drugstore chain by revenue, said it has put four Illinois pharmacists in the St. Louis area on unpaid leave for refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception in violation of a state rule.
The four cited religious or moral objections to filling prescriptions for the morning-after pill and "have said they would like to maintain their right to refuse to dispense, and in Illinois that is not an option," Walgreen spokeswoman Tiffani Bruce said.
A rule imposed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in April requires Illinois pharmacies that sell contraceptives approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fill prescriptions for emergency birth control. Pharmacies that do not fill prescriptions for any type of contraception are not required to follow the rule.
Ed Martin, an attorney for the pharmacists, on Tuesday called the discipline "pretty disturbing" and said they would consider legal action if Walgreen doesn't reconsider.
At least six other pharmacists have sued over the rule, claiming it forces them to violate their religious beliefs. Many of those lawsuits were filed by Americans United for Life, the Chicago public interest law firm with which Martin is affiliated.
The licenses of both a pharmacy and that store's chief pharmacist could be revoked if they don't comply with the Illinois rule, Bruce said.
Walgreen, based in Deerfield, Ill., put the four on leave Monday, Bruce said. She would not identify them. They will remain on unpaid leave "until they either decide to abide by Illinois law or relocate to another state" without such a rule or law.
For example, she said, the company would be willing to help them get licensed in Missouri and they could work for Walgreen there.
Walgreen policy says pharmacists can refuse to fill prescriptions to which they are morally opposed, except where state law prohibits, but they must take steps to have the prescription filled by another pharmacist or store, Bruce said.
Bruce said Wednesday the four pharmacists were the first Walgreen had disciplined under the state's rule. Walgreen has 488 stores in Illinois, out of about 5,000 nationwide, with generally three to five pharmacists employed at each one.
It was not clear whether other large pharmacy chains had taken similar action.
Jean Coutu Group Inc., which owns more than 1,900 Eckerd and Brooks stores, requires its pharmacists to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception, spokeswoman Helene Bisson said. But she wouldn't say if Jean Coutu has taken action similar to Walgreen.
CVS Corp., the nation's largest retail pharmacy as measured by number of stores, did not immediately return calls.