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    Covering Birth Control

    Why one woman sued.


    The resulting lawsuit has made waves for its landmark legal strategy. It charges that a company whose insurance plan covers most prescription drugs but excludes contraceptives violates federal discrimination laws because only women use prescription contraceptives.

    Family planning advocates argue that excluding birth control from prescription coverage is not only discriminatory, it's also economically short-sighted. Contraception is far cheaper than the cost of either a pregnancy or an abortion. In 1996, the Health Insurance Association of America estimated it would cost about $16 per person to provide birth control coverage for members of group plans. Compare that to the average cost of an abortion: $316.

    "Services for men get covered much quicker than services for women," says Judith DeSarno, president and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. It was only 25 years ago that insurance companies agreed to cover the cost of prenatal care. "There's a very clear pattern here," she says. "It's the nickel-and-diming of women's health."

    A recent nationwide survey found that two-thirds of Americans want insurers to cover contraception. Currently 13 states have passed laws requiring health plans to pay for contraceptives if they cover prescription drugs to include contraceptives, and 21 states are considering such legislation. Federal legislation has been stalled in Congress since 1997.

    The big problem with the state laws, says Roberta Riley, the Planned Parenthood attorney who filed the lawsuit, is that they generally don't apply to self-insured companies like Bartell, which put together their own medical coverage for their workers. Because self-insured companies account for half of all employer-sponsored health insurance, that leaves a large gap. And that, Riley says, was one reason Planned Parenthood decided it was time to go to court.

    But before any lawsuit could be filed, the advocates needed a plaintiff who was willing to risk taking on her employer. They found one in Jennifer Erickson.

    "Jennifer is a Rosa Parks; she has a sense of idealism and altruism," says Riley. "She's a very intelligent young woman, a thinking person. No doubt her experiences turning down women raised her awareness and motivated her to stand up and do something about it."

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