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Copyright 2000 The Washington Post  
The Washington Post

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July 22, 2000, Saturday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 857 words

HEADLINE: 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.

"It will 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 prepared statement.

"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 discrimination.

"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 insured.

"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.

In 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 that self-insure.

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 not.

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 affect Catholics.

Feldt said that if this suit is successful, Planned Parenthood chapters in other states likely would launch similar suits of their own.


LOAD-DATE: July 22, 2000

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