In a case that could have broad impact on contraceptive coverage nationwide, Planned Parenthood filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday charging that a company whose health insurance plan covers most prescription drugs, but excludes contraceptives, is illegally discriminating against its female employees.
"It's sex discrimination when male employees get their basic health care needs covered by insurance, but women are forced to pay for their own," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The case, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, was filed in federal court in Seattle on behalf of Jennifer Erickson, a pharmacist at the Bartell Drug Co., and all other female employees of the company, which operates 45 drugstores in Washington state.
Erickson, who is 26, married and spends more than $300 a year out of pocket on her own contraception, said she had become increasingly troubled by the inequity as she had to tell women who came to the store that their insurance would not pay for contraceptive prescriptions.
"Every single day, I'm processing prescriptions and telling women that their pills aren't covered," said Erickson, who has worked at the drug chain for about 18 months. "Sometimes, they walk away from the counter and say they can't afford it. It really makes you sad, and then you realize your own company doesn't cover it either."
The issue of contraceptive coverage has been a rallying point for women's rights activists for several years - especially since many employers who do not pay for contraception moved quickly to provide coverage for Viagra, which, at nearly $10 a pill, is used to combat impotence.
While almost all traditional indemnity insurance plans provide coverage for some prescription drugs, only about half cover any of the five contraceptive methods available by prescription - oral contraceptive pills, intrauterine device, Depo Provera, Norplant and diaphragm - all of them prescribed to women. Only about a third cover the pill, which costs about a dollar a day. Even among HMOs, which offer the most comprehensive coverage, only 39 percent cover all five methods, and 7 percent do not cover the pill.
So far, the question of gender equity in prescription drug coverage has mostly been one for the legislatures. Since April 1998, 13 states, including Maryland, have passed laws requiring that private insurance plans that pay for prescription drugs must also include contraceptive coverage.