It Happened to Me: My Birth Control Was Recalled

And I had to find out for myself.

Sep 29, 2011 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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I looked at the list of generic birth-control names and lot numbers, matching them to my own prescriptions.

Tri-Previfem? Check. Serial number 0603-7663-17? Check. Lot DGHH? Oh, shit.

The PDF I was scanning was a recall list. Generic drug company Qualitest Pharmaceuticals recently admitted to packaging some birth-control pills 180 degrees from the way they were intended, meaning some women were taking their pills basically in backward order. In other words, useless. And there was my prescription, right there on that list.

I found out about the recall from, of all places, Gothamist, a site I usually read to find out about concerts and pop-up shops in New York City, not to check in on my reproductive health. But, there it was, under the cheery heading: "Hope You're Not Pregnant!"

Knowing that my birth control was possibly defective was frightening. Finding out from a city-centric blog was just galling. The last time there was a recall for cars, I'm pretty sure I heard about it on a popular morning news show as I was getting dressed. My TV was mum about this birth-control deal. Yet the last big BMW recall in late-September affected only 190 cars; Qualitest Pharmaceuticals' shipped out 1.4 million packages of possibly defective product.

"There are no immediate health issues," associated with the recall, Qualitest spokesman Kevin Wiggins was quoted as saying on CNN.com. "The unintended consequence of pregnancy is really the issue."

How that doesn't fall under the heading of "health issue" is foggy, but the message is clear. There wasn't a real chance of unintended death; unintended life, maybe. I had to piece together information from all different sources. The PDF of recalled pills had generic brand names (12 of them), lot numbers and expiration dates, but nothing about what to do if your pills wound up on the list; there was no phone number for Qualitest Pharmaceuticals.

The company's website -- tagline: "Character, Commitment, Community" -- boasted about the many advantages of the company's working environment in Huntsville, Alabama, but nothing about its faulty birth control. I tracked down a phone number -- thank you again, CNN -- but alas, it was the weekend, and the Huntsville offices were closed.

I spent the next few days still taking my old birth control pills, wondering if they were no more effective than a Flinstone vitamin. When Monday finally rolled around, I finally got someone from Qualitest Pharmaceuticals on the phone. She confirmed what I read in the PDF -- yes, my birth control lot numbers matched up with those in the recall. But no, she couldn't tell me if my pills were actually packaged backward. And no, she couldn't issue me a replacement. And no, there was no more information she could give me. I had to contact my pharmacy.

Those were words I dreaded. My insurance had switched so that I had to deal with a behemoth, mail-order pharmacy that shipped me three-months supplies of my pills (at, yes, crazy-cheap prices) and didn't want to deal with me in between making refill orders. If I could get someone on the phone, which was dicey, they'd still have to ship my new prescription through the mail, which could take days.

The thing is, I didn't have my choice of pharmacy. (I preferred trips to my local Rite Aid, which, yes, took more of my own time, but filled my prescriptions immediately.) My insurance company made it prohibitively expensive for me to use anything else. I didn't have a choice in the brand of the generic birth control pill I used, either  -- my insurance picked that, too. Yet when something went catastrophically wrong, it was all up to me to fix it.

I had to find out about the recall on my own, match up the serial numbers on the list, track down the phone numbers, talk to people and demand replacements. Why wasn't this more automatic? My online pharmacy claims to serve 60 million people -- surely it has records of who it shipped the affected brands of generic birth control to.

The burden should be on Qualitest Pharmaceuticals -- you know, the company that actually fucked up -- to team up with pharmacies to provide replacement pills to those who purchased defective products without having to be asked, instead of crossing their fingers and hoping that 1.4 million people were reading Gothamist on the right day.

Eventually, I did get a letter -- just a letter, not a replacement prescription -- from my pharmacy. It was a full 10 days after I'd heard about the recall to begin with. The good news: The letter detailed how to tell if your pills were really, truly backward, and mine weren't. If they were, I would've had to order more by mail. I would've had to wait more. I would've missed about half of my active pills in one month.

And I would've said to myself the same thing that Gothamist had said to me earlier: "Hope you're not pregnant!"