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Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company  
The Seattle Times

July 20, 2000, Thursday Final Edition


LENGTH: 1047 words

HEADLINE: Bartell sued over contraceptives coverage
Planned Parenthood alleges gender inequity in medical plans

BYLINE: Catherine Tarpley; Seattle Times staff reporter


Lawyers for Planned Parenthood filed an unprecedented class-action lawsuit in federal court yesterday on behalf of women employees of the Seattle-based Bartell Drugs because it does not cover contraceptives for women in its employee medical plan.
Planned Parenthood claims that the company's policy is a form of gender discrimination and violates the federal Civil Rights Act. It is seeking nominal damages.
Its main objective is to pressure other employers into covering birth-control pills and other contraceptives.
"This is a fundamental gender inequity in health care," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood of America. "It is discrimination when male employees get their basic health-care needs covered by insurance but women are forced to pay for theirs."
By bringing the lawsuit, Planned Parenthood is hoping to prove that plans that offer prescription-drug coverage but exclude prescription contraceptives violate federal discrimination laws, because only women use birth-control drugs and devices.
It is the first-ever lawsuit seeking to force a health-care plan to cover contraceptives.
If they prevail, all Bartell employees will have to be offered FDA-approved contraceptives such as birth-control pills, Depo-Provera injections, Norplant implants, intrauterine devices and diaphragms. The company has nearly 14,000 workers, about two-thirds of whom are women, says company spokesman Mike McMurray.
"This is the dawn of a new era for reproductive rights for women," said lead attorney Roberta Riley. "Our hope is that (a victory) will set legal precedent."
The lawsuit marks a strategy shift in Planned Parenthood's two-year-old effort to make employers cover contraceptives.
Until now, the organization has focused its efforts on legislation, pressuring some states, including lobbying Washington, to pass laws requiring employers to offer contraceptive coverage in their plans.
In 1998, Congress required that health plans for federal employees cover prescription contraceptives, but a bill pending before Congress that would mandate all employers offer such coverage has been stalled for years.
Bills to make companies cover the contraceptives have died twice in the Washington state House, where insurance companies, the Catholic Church and conservatives have lobbied against them.
Chris Charbonneau, president of Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, says those bills would only have affected about half the employers in Washington state anyway. Federal law prohibits state legislatures from regulating health plans offered by so-called "self-insured" companies, which pay for employees' medical care out of their own pockets. Many company plans in Washington state, including Bartell's, are self-insured.
Attorney Riley said only 13 states require certain health plans to include contraceptives. They filed a federal suit to reach beyond state borders, she said.
Bartell denies that it's putting women's health care on the back burner.
"No medical-benefit program covers every possible cost," said Bartell CEO Jean Bartell Barber in a prepared statement.
Barber said she is unsure why her company has been singled out. She said it would be too expensive for Bartell to cover all medication.
For example, Bartell's self-insured prescription-drug plan does not cover Viagra, infertility drugs, drugs for weight reduction, immunization drugs and drugs taken for cosmetic purposes.
But women's rights activists say contraceptives are a special case because so many women need them. Riley says that seven out of 10 women of reproductive age are sexually active but do not want to get pregnant.
Those who choose to use contraceptives pay up to 68 percent more in out-of-pocket health-care costs than men, say women's rights activists.
Charbonneau says only about half the employers in the United States cover contraceptives. And, women's rights activists note, some who exclude birth control do subsidize the anti-impotence drug Viagra.
Planned Parenthood launched its campaign 2 1/2 years ago, shortly after Viagra came on the market, to make employers cover contraceptives. It says that covering birth-control pills would cost employers roughly $21 per employee per year.
The organization has also started a postcard campaign telling clients to ask their bosses to cover the pill. Charbonneau says the postcard campaign has helped employees of such giant companies as Microsoft, Darigold, and Swedish Medical Center persuade their bosses to cover contraceptives.
But Bartell employees have had no luck turning around their company's policies.
One of them was Jennifer Erickson, a 26-year-old supervising pharmacist at the company's downtown Bellevue store.
Beginning last summer, Erickson wrote several letters to company officials asking them to start covering the pill for female employees. She says the company did not respond to her concerns.
As the lead plaintiff in the case, she said, "The suit filed today will affect all of the women employed by Bartell Drug. But that's not enough. There are 60 million women of child-bearing age in this country and I am standing up for them, too."
Charbonneau says that Bartell is one of 50 companies in Washington state that still does not cover contraceptives after being asked by Planned Parenthood and its clients to do so.
But Planned Parenthood decided to go after Bartell, Charbonneau said, because the drugstore chain is generally considered to be a good employer and progressive company.
For example, Bartell sells the morning-after pill, a strong contraceptive that flushes a fertilized egg out of a woman's body if taken shortly after intercourse. Under pressure from abortion opponents, some pharmacies have removed the morning-after pill from their shelves.
Charbonneau said Planned Parenthood believes a suit against Bartell would make people aware that even generally good employers are neglecting to help their employees pay for contraception.
Bartell's Barber said the company will review its medical plan in coming months.
Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.
Catherine Tarpley's phone message number is 206-464-3198. Her e-mail address is

GRAPHIC: PHOTO; Jennifer Erickson


LOAD-DATE: July 21, 2000

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