Court Orders Birth-Control Coverage

June 12, 2001 -- A federal court has for the first time ruled that a company must provide contraceptives for women as part of its health insurance plan.

Ruling in the first federal challenge to employers who do not cover birth control, U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik found that women were receiving less complete coverage than men — and that that violated federal law.

"Although the plan covers almost all drugs and devices used bymen, the exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a gapinghole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving afundamental and immediate health care need uncovered," Lasnikwrote in his ruling.

The lawsuit was brought by Jennifer Erickson, a 27-year-old pharmacist, against her employer, Bartell Drug Co., a family-owned drugstore chain in the Seattle area.

Erickson found that many of her female customers were surprised that birth control pills — the only prescription she and many of the customers needed — were not covered by their insurance plans.

"They're asking me, as a pharmacist, why are they not covered?," she remembers. "I'm like, 'I don't know, mine are not covered either, so good question.'"

Erickson sued Bartell, accusing the company of violating the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act because it did not provide contraceptives under its health plan. The 1978 law is aimed at protecting women against discrimination because they have the ability to become pregnant.

Although the ruling applies only to Bartell, Erickson's lawyer, Roberta Riley, said she hoped it would inspire other women to come forward and demand their employers cover birth control for women.

Riley, a lawyer with Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, called the ruling "a historic step forward."

Victory for Women's Groups

Women's groups, who have argued for years that not covering birth control is a form of discrimination against women, hailed the decision as important and long overdue.

"We've known for some time that this is unfair, this kind of exclusion of a woman's basic health care need from health insurance plans," said Judy Appelbaum, of the National Women's Law Center. "But now we know without any doubt whatsoever that it's also illegal."

Bartell's CEO, Jean Bartell Baker, said the company was disappointed with the verdict but would comply with it.

"I don't think it is fair for us to be tarnished with something that well over 50 percent of the employers in the United States do," Baker said. "The majority of plans in the United States do not cover birth control."

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