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Seattle-based Bartell Drug Co. must include contraceptives for women in its employee health insurance plan, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik of the Western District of Washington issued a summary judgment for Jennifer Erickson in her widely watched lawsuit against Bartell, the first federal challenge to employers who don’t cover birth control. “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. Erickson, a 27-year-old pharmacist, contended that the policy violated the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. “We have to determine, does this policy single out women and put them at a disadvantage because of their potential for pregnancy, and clearly it does,” Erickson’s lead attorney, Roberta Riley, told Lasnik at a hearing last month. However, Bartell lawyer James Dickens told the judge that is the wrong interpretation of the pregnancy law. Thousands of pages of the Congressional Record show no mention of birth control, he said. “The state of not being pregnant was not covered by that law,” he said. Besides, Dickens said, Bartell’s plans exclude a broad range of family planning services. Nationally, women’s groups have been trying for years to force employers to cover contraceptives in health insurance. The debate became particularly charged after the introduction of Viagra, the male impotence pill, which some insurers cover. In December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that two employers violated the pregnancy discrimination law by failing to cover contraceptives — but including other preventive treatments — in health insurance plans. The EEOC said the 1978 law protects women against discrimination because they have the ability to become pregnant, not just because they are already pregnant. Congress in 1998 required that health plans for federal employees cover prescription contraceptives. Erickson has said she 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. Bartell, founded in 1890, had 48 stores in the Seattle area as of last year and is the oldest family-owned drugstore chain in the nation. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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