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Covering Birth Control

Why one woman sued.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

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 overdue.

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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 contraceptives.

"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.

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