Bitter Pills

Lauren Young

In the beginning—back before I was a working parent—I was a single chick. And being single had its privileges: Watching “Letterman,” sleeping late, and seeing every new movie in the movie theater! I had lots of boyfriends, but I was also responsible and took the necessary precautions to avoid being a working parent before the time was ripe.

My former employer, Dow Jones, however, didn’t make that especially easy. The company’s insurance plan did not cover my birth control pills. I always felt a little peeved when I went to my local Duane Reade to pick up my prescription every month--at $35 a pop. But when I found out the health plan covered Viagra, well, let’s just say enough was enough.

Through an alliance with my union, The Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, I decided to become a plaintiff with two other employees in a sexual discrimination charge against Dow Jones. The case dragged on for about a year, but, ultimately, it was settled in favor of Dow Jones employees. You can read more about my case in “Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism.”

Since then, I haven’t paid enough attention to what is happening with the issue, so last week I checked in with Roberta Riley, consulting counsel for legal and international affairs at Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, who has been working on several contraceptive equity cases. (Riley also served as lead counsel in Erickson v Bartell Drug Co., a landmark discrimination case that declared the employer's exclusion of contraception from its health plan was illegal sex discrimination.)

Q. Why is contraceptive coverage an issue?
It’s a huge bread and butter expense for women.

Plenty of women can’t afford unwanted pregnancies, and it can be devastating to a career as well as emotionally and financially in every respect.

Q. How much does the typical woman spend on contraceptives per year?
A. It’s about $500 to $600, but it depends on the methods she uses, the states she lives in, and where she purchases it.

Q. Where do we stand now? Are more companies covering contraceptives?
A. The latest poll that was done showed that of the folks responding, 90% of health plans were covering contraception. That’s consistent with a lot of information we are getting from women out in the field. But there are some big companies that are holdouts, and smaller companies aren’t subject to Title VII .

Q. Which companies are most notable on that hold-out list?
A. Right now Wal-Mart is heavily involved in litigation. It’s amazing how long it’s taken to get a decision on that. We won a ruling against Union Pacific Railroad , and we are on the brink of settling the last remaining issue, which is the amount of attorney’s fees the plaintiffs can recover. It’s been a five-year case.

Union Pacific is also a traditionally male-dominated company that has been resistant on this issue. As of this moment, they are threatening to appeal that ruling, and so that gives you an example of a company that’s chosen to fight a five-year legal battle when it’s clearly in their economic interest to cover contraception.

Q. What’s the economic benefit of covering contraception?
A. It’s more cost effective to fund the prevention of pregnancy than to fund an expensive and unwanted pregnancy. Ironically, some of the challenges Union Pacific and other employers are facing is that healthcare costs are rising so precipitously. Companies are digging in their heels to say no more requirements on us. This is an era when premiums are rising and employees are expected to pay higher co-pays. Now that we are finally winning and getting this included, healthcare coverage is becoming more financially out of reach.

Q. What other hurdles do women today face?
A. Opponents of contraception are making a concerted effort to recruit pharmacists not to fill contraceptives. Isn’t it pharmacist’s job to care for patient? Yet pharmacies throughout country refusing are refusing to fill prescriptions.

Q. Are there any other obvious targets in Corporate America?
A. We know there are companies in the shipping and longshore industries that don’t provide coverage, but I don’t know about the mining industry. The good news is that companies in a lot of sectors of business have really seen the light and voluntarily added these benefits. In addition, several states have contraceptive equity laws—I think we are up to 23 now, including New York, California, and Illinois.

But the thing about state laws is that they only cover one portion of healthcare market, not the big self-insured companies. Congress is the only game in town that has power to fix that.

Q. What are the chances of that?
A. In this era, I think it is zero.

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