A Bitter Pill

updated 09/04/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/04/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jennifer Erickson was discouraged. Every day women would order birth control pills at the Bartell Drug store in Bellevue, Wash., where she works as pharmacy manager. And every day Erickson, 26, had to tell many of them that contraceptives weren't covered by their insurance. "Mine aren't either," she would add sympathetically. To ease her own $300-a-year contraceptive bill, she started buying pills from Planned Parenthood for $15 a month. She and husband Scott, a corporate recruiter, could easily afford that, but she worked with people who couldn't, and it troubled her that Bartell's health plan declined coverage.

When Erickson wrote the human-resources department to ask if the company would reconsider, all she received in reply was a copy of the benefits manual. And so the quiet, young pharmacist took a bold step. Encouraged by Planned Parenthood, Erickson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last December against Bartell, a Seattle-based company founded in 1890, one of the country's oldest drug-store chains. Then in July she and her Planned Parenthood attorneys raised the stakes: They filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Bartell's women employees, the first-ever suit seeking to force a health plan to cover contraceptives. Brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the action claims Bartell discriminates against females, who typically bear the burden of birth control.

"The ability to contracept is a basic health care for women," says Chris Charbonneau, 40, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Washington. If successful, the suit would be a legal landmark. "It would set a far-reaching precedent," says Eric Schnaffer, 58, a professor at the University of Washington law school. "The overarching importance is that there are a lot of things that impact only women."

The issue is not a new one. Thirteen state legislatures as well as the District of Columbia have mandated that private insurance plans pay for contraception. Yet only about half the nation's plans cover birth control pills, and 39 percent cover intrauterine devices, diaphragms, Depo-Provera injections and Norplant. Bartell—two-thirds of whose 1,350 employees in 48 Washington stores are women—claims that covering contraceptives carries too steep a price. "We've listened to our employees and have tried hard to provide the types of benefits that are most valuable to them," wrote Jean Bartell Barber, the family-owned company's chief financial officer, in a prepared statement. "But birth control is a tremendous benefit that is difficult to provide today with the rising costs of health care."

Despite her lawsuit, Erickson thinks highly of the Bartell chain and remains a devoted company woman. "One customer offered to picket," she says. "I said, 'Don't do that! I still work there.' " What's more, she adds, "I can't imagine working anywhere else."

Until recently, she was never inclined to activism. Eleven years old when her parents separated, the Indiana-born Erickson lived during the school year in Eugene, Ore., with her mother, a teacher, and spent summers on her father's Lafayette, Ind., farm. While in high school she dated Scott Erickson. They had lost touch for several years when Jennifer—who had gone on to earn a pharmacology degree from Purdue—heard from Scott's brother and asked him about her old flame. They married on July ? 30, 1999. Scott, 27, is surprised by Erickson's tough stand but supportive. "Jennifer is the type of person who likes to please everyone, so it's unlike her to do something like this," he says. "The No. 1 thing I can do to help is agree with her. And that's easy. I believe in this issue."

The Ericksons "would like to have kids—someday," says Scott, and the ability to decide when that day should be is something his wife feels passionately about. "I believe in making every child a wanted child," explains Jennifer, whose lawsuit is an expression of that conviction. "My mom teaches fifth-grade history, and she thinks that this suit could be in the history books. You never imagine yourself doing something this big."

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