U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said that not treating contraception prescriptions the same as other drugs or devices amounts to discrimination against female employees, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"Bartell's prescription-drug plan discriminates against Bartell's female employees by providing less complete coverage than that offered to male employees," Lasnik said in his ruling.
"Although the plan covers almost all drugs and devices used by men," he added, "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."
The case is the first federal lawsuit to force a self-insured health-care plan to cover contraceptives, according to the Seattle Times.
Employers, insurance companies, and advocates for state and federal laws mandating contraceptive coverage will carefully scrutinize the ruling and its implications, the Times reported.
The class-action suit was brought by Planned Parenthood of Western Washington on behalf of Jennifer Erickson, 27, a pharmacy manager at Bartell, and other women employees of the chain.
Erickson said she had grown tired of having to inform female customers that their drug-control prescriptions weren't covered by their health plans and decided to sue her own employer to help set a precedent.
After the ruling, Erickson praised Bartell as an employer and said she brought the lawsuit on principle, not because she couldn't afford the cost of the drugs. Other female employees can't afford birth control on their own, she said, "and it's definitely an issue for them."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from making employment decisions on the basis of sex or pregnancy.
Lasnik said it "requires employers to recognize the differences between the sexes and provide equally comprehensive coverage, even if that means providing additional benefits to cover women-only expenses."
The ruling means Bartell must cover prescription contraception to the same extent - and on the same terms - that it covers other drugs, devices and preventive care for nonunion employees.
Those would include FDA-approved prescription contraceptives such as birth-control pills, Depo-Provera injections, Norplant implants, intrauterine devices and diaphragms.
Jean Bartell Barber, the company's chief financial officer and granddaughter of the founder, said plans were in the works before the lawsuit to offer contraceptive coverage, but the legal action put them on hold. Union employees, as part of the contract recently negotiated, already receive such coverage.
The company has "really tried to listen to our employees and give them excellent health-care coverage," Barber said.
The Times reported that Bartell has not decided whether to appeal the suit.
Lasnik also ordered Bartell to cover "contraception-related services, including the initial visit to the prescribing physician and any follow-up visits or outpatient services, to the same extent and on the same terms as it offers coverage for other outpatient services for its nonunion employees."
To view the Seattle Times story, click here.
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ederal judge in Seattle ruled on Tuesday that Bartell Drugs, the oldest family-owned drugstore chain in the nation, must cover prescription contraceptives in its employee medical plan.