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DRUGSTORE chain ordered to include contraceptives in health plan


SEATTLE (AP) _ The woman who won a court ruling requiring her employer to include birth control for female employees in its health insurance coverage says she hopes the case sets a broad precedent.

``I am extremely pleased and I want to encourage all employers and insurance companies across America to cover contraceptives in their plans,'' said Jennifer Erickson, a pharmacist at Bartell Drug Co.

U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik on Tuesday ruled in favor of Erickson and other nonunion employees of the 50-store chain in the Seattle area. Denying contraceptives to women means they get less complete coverage than men, and that violates federal law, Lasnik said.

``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.

It was the first federal court decision to find that women are entitled to contraceptives as part of their health coverage, said Judy Appelbaum of the National Women's Law Center and Roberta Riley, Erickson's lawyer and counsel for Planned Parenthood.

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

Bartell moved immediately to comply but said no decision had been made on an appeal.

Birth control already had been added to health coverage for union-covered employees April 1 and the company will ``take prompt action'' to add the benefit for nonunion employees, said Jean Bartell Barber, chief financial officer.

Barber said Planned Parenthood chose Bartell for the court test because it is a good employer with extensive medical benefits. Founded in 1890, Bartell is the nation's oldest family-owned drugstore chain.

Nationally, women's groups have been trying for years to force employers to cover contraceptives in health insurance. The issue grew more heated when the anti-impotence drug Viagra was introduced and many insurers moved to cover it.

Appelbaum noted it took 37 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the question of contraceptive coverage to reach the courts.

``I think women have been finding a way to pay for this health care need out of pocket, and it's never been fair, it's never been right, but in recent years they've started to come forward,'' she said.

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