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Copyright 2000 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.  
The Plain Dealer

July 20, 2000 Thursday, FINAL / ALL


LENGTH: 477 words



   In a case that could have broad impact on contraceptive coverage nationwide, Planned Parenthood filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday charging that a company whose health 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, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president.

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 Co., and all other female employees of the company, which operates 45 drugstores in Washington.

Erickson, who is 26, married and spends more than $300 a year out of pocket on her contraception medication, said she had become increasingly troubled by the inequity.

"Every single day, I'm processing prescriptions and telling women that their pills aren't covered," said 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, Erickson said, she wrote to the human resources department asking that contraceptive coverage be added to the company policy, and was told that it was not something the company felt it should cover. She got a similar response, she said, when she talked to her supervisor.

Mike McMurray, Bartell's vice president for marketing, said the company had worked hard to provide the health benefits its employees consider most valuable. "No medical benefits program covers every possible cost," he said, going on to add that Bartell, for example, does not pay for infertility treatment, Viagra or cosmetic surgery.

The issue of contraceptive coverage has been a rallying point for women's rights activists for several years - 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 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 diaphragm - all of them prescribed to women. And only about a third cover the pill, which costs about a dollar a day. Even among HMOs, which offer the most comprehensive coverage, only 39 percent cover all five methods, and 7 percent do not cover the pill.

As a result, a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found, women of reproductive age typically spend 68 percent more on out-of-pocket health care than men.


LOAD-DATE: July 21, 2000

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