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Copyright 2000 Newsday, Inc.  
Newsday (New York, NY)

December 15, 2000, Friday NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION


LENGTH: 385 words



Washington-Viagra, a godsend to impotent men, set off protests among women who argued that health insurance companies that cover a male sex drug also should cover birth control pills for women.

Now a federal agency agrees, saying it's against the law for many health plans to exclude contraception.

The decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, announced Wednesday, directly affects only two women who complained to the commission. But it has potential implications for millions of others whose health insurance plans exclude birth control pills, diaphragms and other forms of prescription contraceptives. "Our hope is that we announce a principle and employers want to comply with the law," said Ellen J. Vargyas, an EEOC attorney who worked on the case.

Women's advocates have pushed for this coverage in Congress, in the courts and in the media, but the EEOC is the first official body to conclude that the law already requires it.

The debate over contraceptive coverage burst into public when the male impotence drug Viagra came onto the market in April, 1998.

Women's groups argued that it was unfair that many insurance companies covered Viagra and did not cover birth control since both allow for sexual activity, albeit in different ways.

Specifically, the EEOC said excluding contraceptives is a violation of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires equal treatment of women "affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions," in all aspects of employment, including fringe benefits. The law also protects women against discrimination because they have the ability to become pregnant, not just because they are already pregnant, the agency noted.

The commission also found that excluding contraceptives amounts to sex discrimination because these prescriptions are available only for women.

Insurance companies say they are willing to cover contraceptives if employers are willing to pay for it. Some employers do just that; others say it's too expensive.

"Employers and consumers are struggling in many cases to be able to afford coverage," said Richard Coorsh, spokesman for the Health Insurance Association of America.

The EEOC rejected arguments based on cost.

LOAD-DATE: December 15, 2000

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