Court ruling advances contraceptive coverage

The push for insurance coverage of prescription contraceptives has moved forward with
a federal court ruling that a Seattle company must include such coverage in its employee health plan.

In a ruling issued June 12, Judge Robert Lasnik found that Seattle-based Bartell Drug Co.’s policy of excluding coverage for prescription contraception from an otherwise comprehensive employee health plan constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.1 The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jennifer Erickson, RPh, who is the head pharmacist at one of the company’s Bellevue stores.2 (Contraceptive Technology Update reported on the filing of the lawsuit in its March 2001 issue; see p. 25.)

"Male and female employees have different, sex-based disability and health care needs, and the law is no longer blind to the fact that only women can get pregnant, bear children, or use prescription contraception," ruled Lasnik. "The special or increased health care needs associated with a woman’s unique sex-based characteristics must be met to the same extent, and on the same terms, as other health care needs."1

First of its kind

The class-action suit against Bartell was the first of its kind filed in federal court, according to attorneys in the case.3 They predict the ruling is likely to influence other courts, although it is binding only in western Washington.

"This historic lawsuit was filed on behalf of the women whose basic health care needs are not being covered by their employer," said Roberta Riley, lead counsel and staff attorney with Planned Parenthood of Western Washington. "We are thrilled that the court has reversed this unfair and discriminatory policy."

The lawsuit was supported by the Fair Access to Contraception Coalition, which includes Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, the New York City-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Washington, DC-based National Women’s Law Center, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Northwest Women’s Law Center, both based in Seattle. The coalition has set up a web site, www.covermy pills.org, with information to guide women in seeking contraceptive coverage from their employers. Women who are facing resistance in obtaining such coverage are encouraged to contact the coalition, either through the web site or by dialing a toll-free number, (800) 727-2996.

"I’m pleased with the decision and hope it encourages other women to go to covermypills.org to learn how they can work with their employers to get prescriptive contraception coverage, " said Erickson.

Company planned coverage

According to Bartell Drug Co., which operates 50 stores in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, the company had planned to include prescription contraceptive coverage in its health plan prior to the filing of the lawsuit. The company, which employs about 1,600 workers, says it began coverage of such drugs for union employees in April 2001 and had planned to add similar coverage for nonunion employees, including Erickson.4

"It was never our intention to discriminate, and we had planned to offer contraceptive coverage well before this judgment," said Jean Bartell Barber, the company’s chief financial officer and granddaughter of the founder.

Indeed the company had not shown any bad faith or intent to discriminate, ruled Lasnik.

"There is no evidence or indication that Bartell’s coverage decisions were intended to hinder women in their ability to participate in
the work force or to deprive them of equal treatment in employment or benefits," ruled Lasnik.1 "The most reasonable explanation for the current state of affairs is that the exclusion of women-only benefits is merely an unquestioned holdover from a time when employment-related benefits were doled out less equitably than they are today."

References

1. Erickson v. Bartell Drug Co., No. C00-1213L, United States District Court, Western District of Washington at Seattle (June 12, 2001).

2. Skolnik S. Bartell told to pay for birth control. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 13, 2001: accessed at http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/local/27233_bartell13.shtml.

3. Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Erickson v. Bartell Drug Co. decision: Federal district court rules employer must include prescription contraception in its health plan. New York City: June 12, 2001.

4. Bartell Drug Co. Coverage for contraceptives offered to Bartell Drugs employees; company contends that discrimination was not intentional. Seattle; June 12, 2001.