Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
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July 20, 2000, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 16; Column
3; National Desk
LENGTH: 793 words
HEADLINE: Company's Insurance Should Pay for
Contraceptives, Suit Says
BYLINE: By TAMAR
In a case that
could have broad impact on health insurance coverage of contraceptives
nationwide, Planned Parenthood yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit charging
that a company whose insurance plan covers most prescription drugs but excludes
contraceptives is illegally discriminating against its female employees.
"It's sex discrimination when male employees get their basic health care
needs covered by insurance but women are forced to pay for their own," said
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The case, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, was filed in
federal court in Seattle on behalf of Jennifer Erickson, a pharmacist at the
Bartell Drug Company, and all other female employees of the company, which
operates 45 drugstores in Washington.
Ms. Erickson, a married
26-year-old who spends more than $300 a year out of pocket on her own
contraception, said she had become troubled by the inequity as she had to tell
women who came to the store that their insurance would not pay for contraceptive
"Every single day, I'm processing prescriptions and
telling women that their pills aren't covered," said Ms. Erickson, who has
worked at the drug chain for about 18 months. "Sometimes, they walk away from
the counter and say they can't afford it. It really makes you sad, and then you
realize your own company doesn't cover it either."
Last summer, Ms.
Erickson said, she wrote to the human resources department at the family-owned
Bartell's asking that contraceptive coverage be added to the
policy, and was told that it was not something the company felt it should cover.
Mike McMurray, Bartell's vice president for marketing at Bartell's, said
the company had worked hard to provide the health benefits its employees
considered most valuable. "No medical benefits program covers every possible
cost," he said, benefits its employees considered most valuable. "No medical
benefits program covers every possible cost," he said, adding that Bartell, for
example, does not pay for infertility drugs, Viagra or cosmetic surgery. "We
strongly believe our program is a quality program for all of our employees. Our
program is lawful and nondiscriminatory."
The issue of
contraceptive coverage has been a rallying point for advocates
for women's rights, especially since many employers who do not pay for
contraception moved quickly to provide coverage for Viagra, which, at nearly $10
a pill, is used to combat impotence.
While almost all traditional
indemnity insurance plans provide coverage for some prescription drugs, only
about half cover any of the five contraceptive methods available by prescription
-- oral contraceptive pills, the intrauterine device, Depo Provera, Norplant and
the diaphragm -- all of them prescribed to women. And only about a third cover
the pill, which costs about a dollar a day. Even among health maintenance
organizations, which offer the most comprehensive coverage, only 39 percent
cover all five methods, and 7 percent do not cover the pill.
question of gender equity in prescription drug coverage has mostly been one for
the legislatures. Since April 1998, 13 states have passed laws requiring that
private insurance plans that pay for prescription drugs must also include
contraceptive coverage: California, Connecticut, Delaware,
Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina,
Rhode Island and Vermont. Similar legislation is pending in more than a dozen
other states, including New York and New Jersey.
The Equity in
Prescription Contraceptive Coverage Act has been stalled in
Congress since 1997.
The idea of taking the matter to court, as a form
of sex discrimination under Title VII, is not a new one. Indeed, a New York
University law professor, Sylvia Law, argued for that strategy in a 1998 article
in the Washington Law Review.
"It's perfectly clear that Title VII
covers sex discrimination in health coverage," Ms. Law said this week. "The
defendants may say that they're not excluding contraception for women only,
they're excluding contraception for everyone, and it just happens that the only
prescription contraceptives available in this country are for women."
Getting from a legal strategy to a live plaintiff took some doing. "It
turns out that it's hard to find a woman who wants to sue her employer over
contraceptive coverage, for all the obvious reasons," said Eve
Gartner, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood. "It's not like suing when you've been
"Even though the verdict will only be legally binding on this one
employer," she said, "if we win, it puts everyone who doesn't provide
contraceptive coverage on notice that their employees could
GRAPHIC: Photo: Jennifer Erickson
July 20, 2000