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Landmark decision: Seattle company must cover contraceptives

In a ruling that has reproductive and women's rights activists and their attorneys cheering, a federal judge in Washington state has ruled that a Seattle drugstore chain must include contraceptives for women in its employee health insurance plan.

"The exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees."

United States District Judge Robert S. Lasnik issued a summary judgment for Jennifer Erickson, 27, against her employer, Bartell Drugs Co., on June 12, 2001. He ruled that Bartell's exclusion of contraceptives from its plan constitutes discrimination under Title VII, also known as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Enacted in 1978, PDA requires equal treatment of women "affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions" in all aspects of employment, including the receipt of fringe benefits.

"Although the plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men, the exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving a fundamental and immediate health care need uncovered," Lasnik wrote in his decision.

Bartell, the oldest drugstore chain in the U.S., stood by its contention that the company's health insurance plan was not discriminatory. "It was never our intention to discriminate and we had planned to offer contraceptive coverage well before this judgment," says Jean Bartell Barber, the company's chief financial officer.

According to Barber, Bartell added prescription contraceptive benefits to the medical plan for union employees on April 1, 2001, and had planned to extend this benefit to non-union employees, including Erickson. However, when Bartell offered to provide the coverage for Erickson and other non-union employees, lawyers for Planned Parenthood, the organization that brought the lawsuit on Erickson's behalf, rejected the move and forced the case to go to trial.

"It's clear we were singled out by Planned Parenthood in this suit because we are recognized as a good employer," says Barber. "We listen to our employees and have tried hard over the years to provide the types of benefits that are most valuable to them," Barber says, claiming that a letter sent to company officials by Erickson requesting birth control coverage was the only letter the company had ever received from its 1,600 employees asking for that particular benefit. Barber says her company will now take prompt actions to add contraceptive coverage to the non-union employees' plan.

Legal guidelines mounting

Reproductive and women's rights groups have a history of trying to force employers to cover contraceptives in health insurance. The tenor of the debate escalated after the introduction of Viagra, the pill for male impotence, which some insurers cover. Since then, a body of case law has been mounting that says the omission of contraceptive coverage is unlawful in some cases.

Since 1998, Congress has required that all health insurance plans for federal employees cover prescription contraceptives.

The Equal Opportunity Commission ruled on Dec. 12, 2000, that it's against federal law for employers to exclude contraceptives from their health insurance plans when those plans cover other preventive treatments such as vaccinations, routine physical examinations, and dental care.

Although that decision only applied to the two women who filed complaints with the commission, both legal and insurance industry experts say that decision has far-reaching implications for the millions of women who have health insurance plans that don't cover contraceptives such as birth control pills, diaphragms, and injectable prescription contraceptives such as Depo Provera.

Since 1998, Congress has required that all health insurance plans for federal employees cover prescription contraceptives.

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