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Copyright 2000 Gannett Company, Inc.  

July 20, 2000, Thursday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 661 words

HEADLINE: Lawsuit seeks coverage for birth control

BYLINE: Donna Leinwand


   WASHINGTON -- A Seattle pharmacist filed a sex discrimination
lawsuit against her employer on Wednesday to try to force the
company's health plan to pay for birth-control pills, a move that
women's advocates cast as a potential watershed in the nationwide
push to have insurers cover contraceptives.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America says it's the first time
that federal laws banning sex discrimination in companies' policy
decisions have been used to try to expand insurance coverage of
contraceptives. The group is representing Jennifer Erickson, 26,
in her case against Bartell Drug, which has 46 drug stores and
1,350 employees in Washington state.

If successful, Erickson's suit could inspire similar legal efforts
to force companies with private health plans nationwide to pay
for five types of prescription contraceptives, including the pill,
intrauterine devices and Norplant, which is inserted under a woman's

The lawsuit comes four years after Planned Parenthood began pushing
for laws requiring insurers to cover birth control.

New Hampshire, Georgia and Vermont require health plans to provide
full contraceptive coverage. California, Connecticut, Hawaii,
Maine, Maryland, Nevada and North Carolina require full coverage
but allow religious exemptions for employers and insurers, regardless
of the views of employees or policyholders, Planned Parenthood
officials say.

Now, with legislation to require all health plans nationwide to
cover contraception stalled in Congress, the federal discrimination
case represents a new avenue of attack.

"I think there are injustices in our society that are so pervasive
we don't even recognize them. Gender discrimination in health
care is one of them," Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt
says. "When birth control -- the pill -- first became available
(in 1960), there was such a demand that women would have paid
any price to get it. And they still do."

Oral contraceptives cost about $ 360 a year. About a third of traditional
insurance plans with prescription coverage include birth-control
pills. Most health maintenance organizations cover contraception.

A study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that birth-control
coverage would cost employers about $ 21.40 per employee each year.

The suit, filed in Seattle, alleges that Bartell is violating
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by excluding prescription birth
control from its insurance coverage.

Title VII prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from considering
sex or pregnancy when making company policy.

"It's the first case ever making this claim," Planned Parenthood
lawyer Eve Gartner says. "If we win, I see no reason why this
wouldn't be replicated."

Bartell is self-insured and covers other prescription drugs under
its employee health plan. Company officials declined to comment

Erickson, who manages the pharmacy at one of the company's suburban
Seattle stores, said that "I always thought it was unfair" that
the company's plan does not cover contraceptives.

"There are cashiers here who make $ 8 an hour, so more than $ 300
a year for birth control is a lot. That's the biggest injustice
I see," she says.

Erickson said that as she has moved to various jobs within the
Bartell chain, she noted the reactions from female customers when
she told them their insurance plans did not cover birth-control

"They either pay for it reluctantly or they walk away from the
counter without it," Erickson says.

The class-action lawsuit asks the court to order Bartell to cover
all birth-control methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Any ruling would apply only to Bartell's female employees and
spouses covered by the plan.

Gartner is hoping for a much broader impact.

"If we win this case," she says, "every employer in the state
of Washington should be on notice."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, B/W, Elaine Thompson, AP; Erickson: "It's a basic health care need."


LOAD-DATE: July 21, 2000

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