Pharmacist sues for birth control

Herald staff

SEATTLE – A pharmacist sued her employer Wednesday for not covering contraceptives in its health plan, saying the drugstore chain’s policy amounts to sexual discrimination.

Jennifer Erickson, 26, filed the lawsuit in federal court against Bartell Drug Co. and its 48 stores in the Seattle area. She intends to seek class-action status for the suit, described as the first of its kind in the nation.

"The suit filed today will affect all of the women employed by Bartell Drug Company," Erickson told a news conference after filing. "But that’s not enough. There are 60 million women of childbearing age in this country, and I am standing up for them, too."

Mike McMurray, Bartell’s vice president for marketing, said Wednesday the company had worked hard to provide the health benefits its employees consider most valuable.

"No medical benefits program covers every possible cost," he said, adding that Bartell doesn’t pay for infertility drugs, Viagra or cosmetic surgery.

For years, women’s groups and labor organizations have been trying to force employers to cover contraceptives in their insurance policies.

Last year, 60 groups asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to tell employers that excluding contraceptives from health plans amounts to sex discrimination.

In 1998, Congress required that health plans for federal employees cover prescription contraceptives.

In response to requests by Planned Parenthood of Western Washington and other women’s rights groups, Microsoft Corp. changed its insurance benefits to cover contraceptives, as have Darigold and Swedish Hospital in the Seattle area.

The debate became particularly charged after the introduction of Viagra, the $10 male impotence pill, which some insurers cover.

Erickson, who is married and is head pharmacist at Bartell Drugs in Bellevue, said she didn’t like having to pay $300 a year for her birth control pills.

She said she also became frustrated when she had to tell customers they would have to pay for their pills because many other health plans don’t cover contraceptives, though many of those plans pay for abortions and vasectomies.

Contraceptives should be considered part of a woman’s basic health care needs, and it is unfair to deny such coverage, Erickson said.

"Employers and insurers that refuse to cover contraceptives are committing sex discrimination, pure and simple," she said.

Roberta Riley, Erickson’s lead attorney, said only 13 states require certain health plans to include contraceptives. Washington isn’t one of them.

States that have approved laws are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont.

A study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that women of reproductive age typically spend 68 percent more on out-of-pocket health care than men.

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