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Pharmacist Sues Drug Store Chain

July 19, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) _ A pharmacist on Wednesday sued her employer, the nation’s oldest family-owned drug store chain, accusing the company of sexual discrimination for not including contraceptives in its health plan.

Jennifer Erickson, 26, filed the lawsuit in federal court against Bartell Drug Co. 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 said at a news conference. ``But that’s not enough. There are 60 million women of childbearing age in this country and I am standing up for them too.″

Bartell, based in Seattle, did not immediately return calls for comment.

Women’s groups have been trying to force employers to cover contraceptives in their insurance policies for several years. Last year, 60 groups asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to instruct employers that excluding contraceptives from their health plans amounts to sex discrimination.

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

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

Erickson said she didn’t like having to pay for her own birth control pills, which can run between $20 and $30 a month. Contraceptives should be considered part of a woman’s basic health care needs and it is unfair to deny coverage for them, Erickson said.

She said she also became frustrated when she had to constantly tell customers that they would have to pay for their birth control pills _ because many other health plans, like her company’s, don’t cover contraceptives _ though many do cover abortions and vasectomies.

Roberta Riley, Erickson’s lead attorney, said only 13 states require certain health plans to include contraceptives and Washington isn’t one of them. They filed a federal suit to reach beyond state borders, she said.

``A woman’s right to be free from sex discrimination should not depend on what state she lives in,″ she said.

Chris Charbonneau, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, said policies that don’t include contraceptives force women to pay 68 percent more out of pocket than men for health care.

Judy Appelbaum, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, said Erickson was the first woman to pursue a case in federal court on the issue.

``We believe there are more women waiting in the wings,″ she said.

Appelbaum hopes the lawsuit will require companies like Bartell to cover contraceptives in their health plan and lead other companies to do so voluntarily.

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