Copyright 2000 The Washington Post
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July 22, 2000, Saturday, Final Edition
SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A03
LENGTH: 857 words
Woman Sues for Contraception Coverage; Controversy Over Health Care Issue
Spreads From District to Seattle
BYLINE: David A.
Fahrenthold , Washington Post Staff Writer
Backed by Planned Parenthood, a Seattle woman has filed an
unprecedented lawsuit alleging that her employer, a local drug company,
discriminates against female employees by not covering contraception in its
health insurance plan.
Jennifer Erickson, a 26-year-old pharmacist, says
she spends $ 300 of her own money annually because the health plan offered by
the Bartell Drug chain does not cover prescription contraceptives. She is suing
on behalf of all nonunion female employees at Bartell, asking a judge to force
the company to change its coverage.
If Erickson wins, the precedent
could eventually apply to thousands of employers nationwide that--for reasons of
cost or conscience--do not cover prescription contraception.
quite possibly send a message to employers, who may be more likely to start
changing their insurance" rather than be sued, said Planned Parenthood
Federation of America President Gloria Feldt, whose organization is providing
legal counsel for Erickson.
A Bartell Drug spokesman said yesterday that
his company had not been served with papers from the lawsuit, which was filed
Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Bartell defended its policies in a
"No medical benefit program covers every possible
cost," according to the statement. "We strongly believe that our program is
lawful and non-discriminatory."
The lawsuit comes in the middle of a
controversy about mandating health insurance coverage for contraceptives in the
District, and after a period in recent years during which the movement to
require contraceptive coverage has generated considerable
success--and controversy--in some state legislatures.
The issue gained
national attention in the mid- to late-1990s, when health insurance companies
began to provide coverage for the prescription drug Viagra for men. Women's
health advocates complained that many health plans still did not cover birth
control pills, shots, implants and other contraceptive devices that women use.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of women in the
United States use prescription contraceptives. A majority of health maintenance
organizations cover prescription contraceptives, with 80 percent paying for
birth control pills. Other kinds of health insurance plans pay for less, but the
numbers are still around 50 percent.
Though men--who cannot get
prescribed contraceptives--are not denied equivalent coverage, Feldt says the
denial of contraceptive coverage to women is a clear example of
"Singling women out for less than complete health
coverage forces them to use their own money or face getting pregnant--and that's
a woman-only issue," Feldt says.
According to the American Academy of
Actuaries, health care coverage for contraception adds about $ 1.50 per health
plan member per month to insurance premiums. Insurance companies, however, say
any mandated increase in coverage creates more people who cannot afford to be
"Whenever you add on something, you increase cost," said
Richard Coorsh, spokesman for the Health Insurance Association of America.
At a news conference in Seattle on Wednesday, Erickson expressed an
opposite concern about cost, saying she was aiming to help women with health
insurance who couldn't afford to use their own money to buy contraceptives.
"I am standing up--most of all--for the women who have walked away from
the pharmacy empty-handed," she said.
Since 1998, 13 state legislatures
have mandated coverage for contraceptives, and the D.C. Council passed similar
legislation on July 11 after rancorous debate. Congress has written the same
requirement into health insurance plans for federal employees.
debates over the District bill--both at the council and in congressional
committee--many have supported adding a "conscience clause" exemption for
employers opposed to contraception on religious grounds. But few have actively
opposed the idea of mandating contraceptive coverage.
If successful, Erickson's lawsuit would affect a far broader range of
employers than the existing state laws, which do not apply to large employers
Under a 1974 federal statute, self-insured companies,
which pay their own claims from a reserve of company money, are exempt from
state insurance laws. Bartell Drug is self-insured and would be exempt even if
Washington state mandated contraceptive coverage, which it does
A successful suit could implicate all employers, self-insured or
not, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That law bars employers with 15 or
more employees from discriminating on the basis of gender or pregnancy.
It could also affect Catholic employers, which enjoy protection from
"conscience clauses" in nine of the 13 states that mandate contraception. Title
VII has several clauses exempting religious institutions from certain
requirements, but no one could say yesterday how a verdict for Erickson would
Feldt said that if this suit is successful, Planned
Parenthood chapters in other states likely would launch similar suits of their
LOAD-DATE: July 22, 2000