Sept. 4, 2000 -- When Seattle pharmacist Jennifer Erickson returned to work
in late July one day after filing a headline-grabbing lawsuit against her
employer, the Bartell Drug Co., her female co-workers were ecstatic. "It
was all high fives and 'You go, girl!' " Erickson says with a laugh. Her
customers thanked her. Strangers who recognized her from interviews in the
local and national media stopped her on the street.
So why is this 26-year old suing her own employer -- and getting so much
attention and support from her co-workers and customers? Erickson is
challenging one of the longest-standing disparities in medicine. She thinks
it's wrong that the health insurance plans offered by so many companies across
the country provide coverage for drugs like Viagra for men but don't cover
birth control pills and other contraceptives. And she thinks changes are long
In the beginning, there was Seasonale -- the continuous birth control pill that offered women four periods a year. Women grabbed the chance to opt out of their periods. If you don't need it, why put up with it?
Today, "the pill" has been finessed even more, with lighter-period or no-period birth control pills as well as no-PMS, no-acne pills. Seasonale, Seasonique, Yaz, Beyaz, Yasmin, and Lybrel have changed the face of birth control pills.
All are variations of traditional birth control pills...
To try to close this gender gap, Erickson volunteered to be the lead
plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed last month by Planned Parenthood --
the first case ever seeking to force an employer to include contraceptives in
its health plan. While the lawsuit targets only Bartell, it could pave the way
for similar suits against every company in the United States that provides
similar prescription coverage to its employees but fails to cover
"This problem affects millions of women all over the country," says
Sylvia A. Law, a law professor at New York University. "Yet it's the first
time the issue has ever been addressed in a court -- and it's high time."
Law was the first to argue in a 1998 Washington Law Review article that
excluding contraceptives from prescription coverage illegally discriminates
against women under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.
Three-quarters of American women of childbearing age rely on
employer-sponsored plans for their health coverage, according to the Alan
Guttmacher Institute, a research group that works to broaden access to family
planning services. Yet half of all large group-insurance plans do not cover any
form of prescription contraception, and only a third cover the Pill. While most
HMOs do cover oral contraception, only about 40% cover all five of the
FDA-approved prescription birth control methods available in this country.
Erickson's lawsuit aims to assist working women like herself -- those who
are neither rich enough to easily pay for contraceptives themselves nor poor
enough to qualify for help from the government. And while the young newlywed is
new to activism, the role of crusader for women's rights seems to be coming
quite naturally. "I'm very outgoing and outspoken," Erickson says.
"It's easy for me to say, 'This is wrong, fix it.'"
Bartell has yet to file a response to the suit, but in a press statement the
company defended its policy as "lawful and nondiscriminatory," noting
that "no medical benefits program covers every possible cost." Company
officials have not spoken with Erickson about the lawsuit. She says her working
environment has remained friendly.