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Employer's Health Plan Must Include Birth Control for Women


WebMD Health News

June 12, 2001 -- A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Bartell Drug Co. must include contraceptives for women in its employee health insurance plan.

The decision marks nearly a year of litigation, sparked when Jennifer Erickson, a 27-year-old pharmacist, filed suit last summer because the firm would not pay for prescription contraceptives. She contended that the policy violated the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and sued for sexual discrimination.

"Although the plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men," wrote U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik, "the exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving a fundamental and immediate healthcare need uncovered."

The widely watched lawsuit against Bartell became the first federal challenge to employers who don't cover birth control.

"We have to determine, does this policy single out women and put them at a disadvantage because of their potential for pregnancy, and clearly it does," Erickson's lead attorney, Roberta Riley, told Lasnik at a hearing last month.

However, Bartell lawyer James Dickens told the judge that is the wrong interpretation of the pregnancy law. Thousands of pages of the Congressional Record show no mention of birth control, he said.

"The state of not being pregnant was not covered by that law," he said. Besides, Dickens said, Bartell's plans exclude a broad range of family planning services.

Still, Bartell on Tuesday said it would comply with the ruling. In April, the company added birth control to its health plans for union-covered employees and now will "take prompt action" to add the benefit for nonunion employees, such as Erickson, said Jean Bartell Barber. She is the company's chief financial officer and granddaughter of its founder.

"It was never our intention to discriminate, and we had planned to offer contraceptive coverage well before this judgment," she said.

Nationally, women's groups have been trying for years to force employers to cover contraceptives in health insurance. While Erickson herself would be able to afford to pay out-of-pocket for her prescription, she didn't think she and millions of others should have to do so. At the time she filed her suit, health experts told WebMD they agreed with her.

"Contraception is a fundamental part of healthcare," noted David A. Grimes, MD. "It's good, cost-effective, preventive healthcare." He is vice president of biomedical affairs at Family Health International, a nonprofit group in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

At the time Erickson filed suit, about half of all the large group insurance plans were not paying for any form of prescription birth control. Only about a third of health insurance plans included oral contraceptives in their prescription drug coverage. Most HMOs were covering the pill when the suit was filed.

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