Judge says health plan must cover birth control
From CNN's Susan Richter & James Hattori
SEATTLE, Washington (CNN) -- A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Seattle company was guilty of sexual discrimination for not including birth control in its comprehensive health plan.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by pharmacist Jennifer Erickson, 27, against her employer, Bartell Drugs.
"Being a pharmacist, I fill prescriptions for the women I work with," Erickson told CNN in an interview Wednesday. "They're frustrated by the fact that a company that provides health care for people can't provide what the women employees need."
It was the first federal challenge against a employer over the issue of birth control.
In summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik found that Bartell's plan discriminates against its "female employees by providing less complete coverage than that offered to male employees."
"Although the plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men, " he wrote, "the exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving a fundamental and immediate health-care need uncovered. ...
"Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] requires employers to recognize the differences between the sexes and provide equally comprehensive coverage, even if that means providing additional benefits to cover women-only expenses,"
Lasnik ordered Bartell to cover each of the available options for prescription contraception as well as contraception-related services.
Officials at Bartell Drugs maintain their health plan is generous and not discriminatory, arguing in court that contraceptives are voluntary, preventative and not treatment for an illness or disease.
Jean Bartell Barber, chief financial officer of Bartell Drugs, said her company will comply with the order, but is still considering an appeal. She said the ruling was an attempt to make a statement to other companies, not just Bartell Drugs.
"There's no question we've been used as an example," Barber said. "They have been trying to get a company to make a stand."
In a statement to the media, the Bartell CFO said "it was never our intention to discriminate and we had planned to offer contraceptive coverage well before this judgment."
Erickson's attorney, Roberta Riley, said she and her client tried to avoid bringing the case to court.
"We tried very hard to negotiate with this company," Riley said, "and they refused our offer..so it took this court decision to bring this about."
Erickson was represented by lawyers from Planned Parenthood.
National women's groups who have for years been pushing companies to include insurance coverage for contraceptives, call this a huge step forward.
Eighty percent of employers who offer HMO plans to their employees include some form of contraception as part of the plan, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
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