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R.Ph. wins historic court case requiring health plans to cover birth control
If pharmacies want to hire and retain female workers, more of them should include coverage of prescription contraception in their health plans, suggested the pharmacist who won a sexual discrimination lawsuit premised on her employer's failure to provide such coverage.
"Most of the people coming out of pharmacy school today are women," said Jennifer Erickson, a 27-year-old Purdue University graduate employed by the Bartell Drug Co. in Seattle. "And, we want to be able [to wait] for at least five years or for however long before we start a family. Maybe [the decision] will help with the [pharmacist] shortage."
On June 12, a U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled that the 111-year-old Bartell chain had discriminated against its female employees by not covering prescription contraceptives when it covered other prescription drugs, devices, and preventive care.
"Although the plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men, the exclusion of prescription contraceptives creates a gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving a fundamental and immediate healthcare need uncovered," said Judge Robert S. Lasnik. He found that the 50-store, family-owned chain had not intended to discriminate. Rather, the exclusion was "an unquestioned holdover from a time when employer-related benefits were doled out less equitably than they are today."
The ruling went on to say, "Male and female employees have different sex-based disability and healthcare needs, and the law is no longer blind to the fact that only women can get pregnant, bear children, or use prescription contraception."
Roberta Riley, a staff attorney with Planned Parenthood who represented Erickson, said, "This historic lawsuit was filed on behalf of women whose basic healthcare needs are not being covered by their employer." Commented Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, "Prescription birth control is basic health care for women, and the failure to cover birth control is sex discrimination, plain and simple."
Jean Bartell Barber, the chain's CFO and granddaughter of the founder, said that Erickson's request for birth control coverage was the only one the company had ever received on the topic. "Our plans have provided tremendous benefits to all our employees, so far, at no up-front cost to them," she said. She noted that Bartell had extended the contraceptive benefit to union employees last April 1 and would do so for non-union workers, including Erickson.
"It's clear we were singled out by Planned Parenthood in this suit because we are recognized as a good employer," Barber asserted. "The court recognized the broad scope of other benefits provided Bartell employees."
Do other drug chains provide contraceptive coverage to their employees? Eckerd Corp.'s manager of public relations Tami Alderman said, "Currently, the prescription coverage offered to our eligible associates is for services that are medically necessary for maintaining the health of the covered member or their eligible dependents only. Cosmetic surgery and contraceptives are a few of the examples of services that are not normally deemed medically necessary."
A spokesman for CVS Corp. said the chain also does not usually cover contraceptives but noted, "We are aware of the District Court decision in Washington and will be reviewing it as it relates to our own business."
Walgreen Co. will begin covering oral contraceptives in September, a spokeswoman said.
Erickson said she and other pharmacists expend a lot of time explaining to patients how their insurance works. "We're not insurance experts," she told Drug Topics. "We just do the best we can. Hopefully, this [decision] will help us. If more companies cover contraception, we won't have to take so much time out of our day explaining to women that their pills aren't covered." She added: "It's just frustrating being a pharmacist and you're telling your customers all the time their pills aren't covered, yet your own company doesn't cover them."
Advocates of birth control coverage say that fewer than half of health plans in the United States cover the full range of prescription contraceptives. Legislation has been introduced in Congress several times that would require drug plans to cover prescription birth control products, but it has never passed. Several states have enacted laws requiring at least some coverage, but on the same day the federal court ruling was issued, the Louisiana House of Representatives defeated such a requirement.
Erickson urged women to visit covermypills.org, a Web site sponsored by Planned Parenthood, to learn how they can get their employers to change their insurance to include contraceptives among their benefits.
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