Copyright 2000 The Washington Post
December 15, 2000, Friday, Final Edition
SECTION: FINANCIAL; Pg. E01
LENGTH: 1008 words
EEOC Rules on Birth Control
BYLINE: Sarah Schafer ,
Washington Post Staff Writer
Employers must cover contraceptives in their health
insurance plans if they also help pay for a wide range of other
products and services designed to prevent illness or enhance general well-being,
the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled in two cases that
could set a national precedent.
The EEOC decision, released late
Wednesday night, sets the stage for a possible flood of legal action brought by
workers because it advises employers that they would be violating federal
anti-discrimination law if they provide health coverage for things such as
blood-pressure medication and impotency treatment but deny coverage for
birth-control pills, diaphragms and other prescription
These types of EEOC advisories do not
carry the same weight as agency rulings or court rulings but provide guidance
for companies and courts wrestling with issues with few or no legal precedents,
said Ellen Vargyas, an EEOC lawyer who worked on this case. Ultimately, however,
the courts will decide whether to accept the agency's interpretation of the law.
The EEOC was responding to two complaints filed by women who claimed their
employers discriminated against them because their health plans did not help pay
for contraceptives. The advisory could affect millions of
workers, primarily women, and it has reignited a controversy that has been
brewing at the local and state levels between some religious groups and
"We hope that as employers are put on notice by the EEOC of
their legal obligation to cover contraceptives in their health
plans . . . that employers will comply," said Judy Appelbaum, a vice president
for the National Women's Law Center in Washington. She said the decision "means
many, many more women will have insurance coverage for this
very basic health care."
Judie Brown, president of the antiabortion
education group American Life League in Stafford, said she was "appalled" at the
decision. Brown, whose organization opposes contraception, said, "I just
absolutely do not believe that any company in the United States of America
should be in the position of having to pay for birth control because females
don't want to accept responsibility for the possibility of being with child
after they have sexual relations."
In the two complaints--the details of
which are confidential--filed with the EEOC, the employers responded that their
health plans covered only "abnormal conditions."
disagreed, noting that the plans covered weight-loss drugs, dental procedures
and the impotency drug Viagra, Vargyas said, adding that the introduction of
Viagra in 1998 marked the beginning of a national outcry over alleged unfair
treatment in health benefits.
For decades, many women's groups have
called on more health insurers to provide contraception coverage, arguing that
it is a fundamental health issue. When Viagra reached the market, many employers
immediately added it to their health plans, sometimes without requiring a
diagnosis of impotency. Many women felt that it was unfair of employers to cover
a product for impotency in men and not to cover prescription contraception.
"Viagra is the reason that this [issue] came into the public domain,"
Vargyas said. "That's when women really started to wake up and scratch their
heads and say, 'What is going on here?' "
Vargyas called the matter an
issue of sex discrimination because the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act
requires equal treatment of women affected by pregnancy or related medical
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of
women in the United States use prescription contraceptives.
Kaiser estimates that a majority of health maintenance organizations cover the
products--80 percent cover birth-control pills--and about half of other types of
health plans cover contraceptives.
National and local
lawmakers have struggled with the issue of health coverage for
contraceptives, a concept that many religious organizations
oppose. Last summer, the D.C. Council passed legislation mandating that all
District employers provide health coverage for contraception. Mayor Anthony A.
Williams (D) would not sign the law after it received bitter opposition from the
Catholic Archdiocese, among others, which claimed that religious organizations
should be exempt. That bill has not resurfaced.
Some members of Congress
have tried to pass a law requiring private health plans to cover
contraceptives. Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sponsored such a
bill, which has never made it out of committee. A narrow version of it requiring
federal employees' health plans to cover prescription
contraceptives has been passed.
A spokesman for Reid
said the senator will try to get his bill reintroduced in light of the EEOC's
"This ruling is a significant victory for women in America who
are unable to get health coverage of critical contraceptive
care. I have always said that it is unconscionable that a man can get covered
for a prescription like Viagra and women can't get coverage for their most
fundamental health care needs," Reid said in a statement released yesterday.
Others also were encouraged by the news, including a woman in Seattle
who became the first to sue her employer for sex discrimination because its
health plan did not cover contraception. Her attorney, Roberta Riley, said the
EEOC decision could boost her client's chances.
"Clearly we're very
pleased that the EEOC agrees with our position, which is that this is sex
discrimination," Riley said. "It's wonderful news for American women."
Brown said her group will not accept the decision as final.
think that this is a warning to us all that we had better motivate every single
state and local pro-life group," she said, adding that she hopes to put pressure
on President-elect Bush to oppose any far-reaching mandate by a federal agency.
The two women who filed the claims with the EEOC will now attempt to
resolve their disputes with their employers, Vargyas said.
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