Birth Control Benefit Could Be a Bitter Pill For Employers

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ELAINE THOMPSON/AP

Jennifer Erickson, a phamacist at Bartell's, sued the drug store chain

Jennifer Erickson was tired of paying $300 a year for her birth control pills despite being covered under her employer’s health plan. She was frustrated because every one of her male co-workers’ prescriptions were covered under the same plan. So she called Planned Parenthood, found a lawyer willing to take on her case, and, along with several other women, filed a class action suit against her employer.

Now, thanks to Erickson’s tenacity — and her employer’s refusal to negotiate — a federal judge has ordered that employer, Seattle area drugstore chain Bartell Drug Co., to include oral contraceptives in the company’s prescription drug coverage plan. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled Tuesday that Bartell’s refusal to offer full benefit coverage to women was tantamount to sex discrimination. "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 health care need uncovered," Lasnik wrote in his opinion.

Women’s health groups hail the decision as a breakthrough; activists hope the federal ruling will signal other employers that inequitable coverage will not stand up to legal scrutiny. (They won’t get any argument from the defendant; after the judgement was announced Bartell’s chief financial officer, Jean Bartell Barber, said she believes Lasnik wanted to make an example of her company.)

David Larson, a professor of labor and employment law at Saint Paul’s Hamline University School of Law, feels the Bartell case could send a message to other companies making decisions about employee health care policies. "In a sense, this is something of a landmark case," Larson told TIME.com. "The particulars of contraception haven’t been litigated before — and some of the language used in this case can be extended to other cases. The language does say 'if you choose to cut out certain drug coverage for cost reasons, you’d better be sure you’re not putting one group at a comparative disadvantage.'"

Does this mean every company in the nation should rush off immediately to charge their lawyers with restructuring their prescription policy? Not necessarily, says Larson. "To keep this in perspective, you have to remember this is a district court in Washington state. So while I’m sure this decision will be read widely and with great interest, the binding precedent doesn’t go very far."

Facing a media onslaught after the verdict, Bartell officials tried to effect a nonchalant demeanor Wednesday, insisting plans to cover contraceptives in their health plan were launched long before Erickson’s case was completed. No word yet on whether the company will file an appeal.