In the first federal court case to address inequities between men and women in the coverage of birth control, a district court in Seattle ruled last week that excluding a woman’s prescription contraceptives from an employee health plan constitutes sex discrimination.
The court’s decision is the first of its kind since the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in December that prescription health plans that exclude prescription contraceptives from otherwise comprehensive health plans violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
This is also the first time in 37 years that a court had been asked to evaluate the common practice of excluding contraceptives from a generally comprehensive health plan under the Civil Rights Act.
“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,” writes District Court Judge Robert Lasnik in Erickson v. Bartell Drug Co. “The special or increased healthcare needs associated with a woman’s unique sex-based characteristics must be met to the same extent, and on the same terms, as other healthcare needs.”
The case stems from a lawsuit by Jennifer Erickson, a 27-year-old pharmacist who sued her employer, Bartell Drug Company, because their insurance plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men, but not prescription contraceptives for women. The court ruled that this practice “creates a gaping hole in the coverage offered to female employees, leaving a fundamental and immediate healthcare need uncovered.”
Although the ruling has no immediate impact in Montana, Bartell Drug Company has indicated that it will appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A ruling there could have a profound impact on Montana, where many employers—including the State of Montana and the state university system—do not cover prescription contraceptives for their female employees.
“The State of Montana is in violation of the Civil Rights Act at this point, as is every employer in the state of Montana who does not cover contraception,” says Stacey Anderson, executive director of Montana’s branch of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League . “We just needed someone who was brave enough to step up and challenge them. Women are paying about 80 percent more in out-of-pocket health care expenses because of birth control. And that’s just wrong.”
During the 2001 legislative session, Rep. Christine Kaufmann (D-Helena) introduced a bill called the Contraceptive Equity Act to address this inequity. That bill died in committee.