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Who Should Cover the Cost of Contraception?

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Roberta Riley of Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, who is the lead attorney in Erickson's, case, says her client repeatedly asked her employer to change its policy and cover birth control. When they continued to refuse, she decided to sue.

"I think it was only a matter of time before something like this happened," says Cynthia Dailard, senior public policy associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute in Washington, D.C. "If the lawsuit is successful, it will put many employers on notice that they could face similar lawsuits if they do not cover contraceptives, and that it is a matter of gender discrimination."

Both Planned Parenthood of Western Washington and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which is also representing Erickson, say birth control prevents unintended pregnancies and reduces the need for abortion.The group cites 1998 statistics showing that nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and many of these pregnancies end in abortion.

Experts who spoke to WebMD agree that one thing that has increased women's anger over this lack of coverage is the advent of Viagra.

"Viagra is covered by many [insurance] programs and was scooted onto the market so quickly, while women have been struggling for decades to get coverage of contraception," Grimes says. He believes the discrepancy amounts to nothing less than discrimination against women, many of whom cannot afford $20-$30 per month for birth control pills.

It is estimated that women of childbearing age pay about 68% more out of their own pockets for medical expenses than men. And now, even the Viagra pills -- at $10 apiece -- are often covered, while birth control is not. According to estimates, paying for birth control would cost insurers only about $1.43 per month for each female employee. That would provide them with all available FDA-approved forms of contraception; the cost would be even less if the employer only provided coverage for some methods.

Some in Congress are trying to force change by passing a law that would require all employers and insurance companies to pay for birth control. Progress has been slow, but individual states have passed such laws on their own. States that require companies who pay for other prescription drugs to pay for prescription birth control include Maryland, Georgia, Vermont, Maine, Nevada, Connecticut, North Carolina, Hawaii, New Hampshire, California, Iowa, Delaware, and Rhode Island. But nine of the 13 states have provisions that let employers, enrollees, or insurers who object to such coverage on "religious grounds" off the hook.

Most experts say individual states will probably continue to pass laws, and people will keep a close eye on the progress of Jennifer Erickson's lawsuit. But what can a woman who is paying for her own birth control do in the meantime?

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