Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company
July 20, 2000, Thursday Final Edition
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A1
LENGTH: 1047 words
Bartell sued over contraceptives coverage
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
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."
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
It is the first-ever lawsuit seeking to force a health-care plan to
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.
Riley said only 13 states require certain health plans to include
contraceptives. They filed a federal suit to reach beyond state borders, she
Bartell denies that it's putting women's health care on the back
"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
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
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
LOAD-DATE: July 21, 2000