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Copyright 1999 The Buffalo News  
The Buffalo News

June 11, 1999, Friday, CITY EDITION


LENGTH: 492 words





Some women's groups are trying a new tack in their effort to force employers to include prescription contraceptives in health insurance coverage: It's against the law not to, they say.

Sixty groups are asking the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to instruct employers that excluding birth-control pills and other contraceptives from their health plans amounts to gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, the fight to toughen the law was renewed in Congress, where legislation to force insurance companies to cover contraception was reintroduced.

The issue gained steam last year when the male impotence drug Viagra came onto the market. Some women's groups argued that it was unfair that many insurance companies covered Viagra and did not cover birth control, including the birth-control pill, Depo-Provera, Norplant, diaphragms and intrauterine devices.

"The time has come to make sure women are no longer cheated with the insurance coverage they get," said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which asked the commission to issue a "policy guidance" to employers on the issue.

Such a policy would not be legally binding, but it could influence employers and would strengthen a lawsuit on the subject should one be filed. The Women's Law Center is also considering such a lawsuit.

A commission spokesman, Michael Widomski, said the panel has never looked at the issue. Even if it decided to act, it would take at least several months to develop such a policy, he added.

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including pregnancy-related discrimination, and the courts have struck down other insurance policies based on gender discrimination.

One of the issues is whether the coverage rules affect women differently, explained Suzanna Sherry, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert in sex-discrimination law.

The argument is compelling, she said.

"It is taking the law a step beyond where it is right now, but it's not a huge step. It's a plausible one. But I wouldn't want to predict what the EEOC would do or a court would do," she said.

Employers oppose mandatory coverage, citing the cost. They also argue that denying contraceptive coverage is not sex-based -- it just happens that women are the only ones who can benefit from prescription contraceptives, said Kate Sullivan of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"It's not a matter of just denying a benefit to women," she said.

Also Thursday, legislation to force coverage, which died in Congress last year, was reintroduced.

"We don't have equity. Women pay for contraceptives, and insurance companies pay for Viagra. What's wrong with that picture?" said Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., lead sponsor in the House.

The legislation would force insurance companies that cover prescriptions to include contraception. By contrast, the commission action would direct employers to pay for it.


LOAD-DATE: June 13, 1999

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