The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Washington National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) today announced the filing of a class-action lawsuit against Regence BlueShield, the state's largest insurer, for its exclusion of prescription contraceptives from the health care insurance policies it sells to small employers. The lawsuit charges that Regence BlueShield is discriminating against women by excluding from coverage prescriptions that are essential to women. The lawsuit was filed yesterday in King County Superior Court.
The ACLU and Washington NARAL are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit because like many small employers, both organizations provide their employees with health insurance benefits that include prescription coverage. Unfortunately, the Regence plans either cover no prescription contraceptives or only birth control pills. Both the ACLU and NARAL have asked Regence to provide coverage for all FDA-approved forms of prescriptive contraception in the group plans for their employees.
"As an employer, the ACLU wants to provide coverage for contraceptives to our female employees and dependents. This is a matter of basic fairness because contraception is a key part of health care for women," said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director for the ACLU of Washington.
Karen Cooper, Executive Director of Washington NARAL, said, "It is outrageous than an organization that fights to protect reproductive freedom is unable to provide basic reproductive health care for its employees."
Deborah Senn, former state insurance commissioner, and Sandeep Baweja of the firm Bergman Senn Pageler & Frockt are representing the plaintiffs.
In 1998 the ACLU informed Regence that the two health care plans it made available to the ACLU were inadequate because one of the policies only covered birth control pills and the other policy did not even provide that. Regence declined to offer the coverage and even declined the ACLU's request to purchase the additional coverage as a rider.
The FDA has approved seven prescriptive contraceptives: oral contraception, diaphragms, IUDs, Norplant, Depo-Provera injections, "the morning-after pill," and Lunelle. But the plans Regence has issued to the ACLU and NARAL do not include such coverage, with the limited exception of oral contraceptives.
To successfully prevent pregnancy, it is important for women to have a choice among contraception methods. Certain medical conditions preclude the use of one or more methods. For women who cannot medically and safely take birth control pills, coverage limited to oral contraceptives amounts to no coverage at all. Furthermore, many women obtain and use prescription contraceptives for regular maintenance of health, such as lessening severe pain during menstruation.
A parallel class-action lawsuit was filed simultaneously against Regence BlueShield on behalf of individual employees who desire to have contraception devices that are not covered.
In June, in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood against Bartell Drugs, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnick ruled that employers who provide prescription coverage cannot exclude contraceptive prescriptions. That ruling addressed the obligations of an employer who provides prescription benefits. This lawsuit is against an insurance company who refuses to offer such nondiscriminatory policies to employers.
"We and other women's rights groups have been working to get insurance companies to include prescription contraceptives in their health care packages for years. The court's ruling confirms what we have been saying all along -- that fairness to women requires coverage for prescription contraceptives," added the ACLU's Kathleen Taylor.