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Pharmacist Stands Up For Women

In the first federal lawsuit of its kind, a pharmacist from Seattle has sued her employer Bartell Drug Co., because it doesn't cover contraceptives in its health plan. The 26-year-old calls it sexual discrimination.

Jennifer Erickson said she became frustrated when she had to tell customers constantly that the money to cover their birth control pills would have to come out of their own pockets. Meanwhile she said, many companies cover abortions and vasectomies.

"There are 60 million women of childbearing age in this country and I am standing up for them too," Erickson said. "For most women of my age, that's the only medication they get."

She intends to seek class-action status for the suit filed Wednesday.

But the drugstore chain's chief financial officer, Jean Bartell Barber, contends the plan does a good job covering most costs for employees.

"We strongly believe that our program is lawful and nondiscriminatory," Barber said.

The company's plan does not cover contraceptives — unless prescribed for medical conditions that aren't related to birth control — Viagra, infertility and drugs for weight loss or immunization agents.

Advocates hope other women will follow Erickson's lead and try to force companies to cover contraceptives in their insurance policies.

"We believe there are more women waiting in the wings," said Judy Appelbaum, vice president of the National Women's Law Center.

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.

Roberta Riley, Erickson's lead attorney, said only 13 states require certain health plans to include contraceptives and Washington isn't one of them.

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

Chris Charbonneau, 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.

"The public overwhelmingly supports birth-control coverage because they understand that it prevents unintended pregnancy and reduces the need for abortions," Charbonneau said.

Bartell, founded in 1890, has 48 stores in the Seattle area and is the oldest family-owned drugstore chain in the nation.

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