(WOMENSENEWS)–As Amy Moses sat listening to the healthcare benefits that came along with being a law student at George Washington University, it struck her that there were some inequities.
It was 2001, and while the university’s plan covered abortion, it did not cover contraceptives. A few weeks later, Moses, along with two unidentified classmates and backed by women’s health and legal advocates, filed acomplaint with the university claiming the explicit exclusion of contraceptive coverage from the George Washington University Student Health Insurance Plan constituted sex discrimination in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law most often associated with women’s athletics.
The university responded by changing its plan and including birth control pills and other contraceptives.
“We are extremely gratified that GWU has agreed to provide this coverage,” Moses said. “Not only is contraceptive coverage legally required, it is sound public health policy. Every student health plan should include contraceptive coverage.”
It’s a model that many students and health care advocates hope will be followed.
“We think it’s part of a general trend of growing awareness about women’s health care,” said Dina Lassow, an attorney with the National Women’s Law Center, who signed on to Moses’ request. “These discriminatory practices are being examined and overturned.”
Leslie Brueckner, another attorney who supported the request, added, “This may be the beginning of a tidal wave of policy change across the country.” On staff with the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Brueckner added, “We hope to pursue a campaign with other universities.”
Moses Applied a Landmark Lawsuit to Universities
Moses’ request is the first to apply Erickson v. Bartell Drug Company, a 2001 federal court ruling ordering an employer to cover contraceptives if it covered illness-prevention drugs, to university student health care plans. The Erickson ruling was based in part on a December 2000 decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found that contraceptive exclusions violate Title VII.
The attention to contraceptive coverage, based on the Erickson lawsuit, has led to more than 20 states passing laws requiring state-regulated insurance plans to cover birth control pills, diaphragms, Depo-Provera and other forms of prescription contraceptives.
Last year’s federal ruling in the Erickson case did not apply to schools, but Moses’ lawyers argued that the gender-equity rules applying to schools that receive federal funds should extend the same logic to college health plans. Although Title IX, which requires gender equality at educational institutions, is applicable to universities, no known attempt has tried to apply it to contraceptive coverage, said Donna Lee, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, who also signed on to Moses’ request.
“When we realized it was a concern for students, we tried to make an accommodation,” said Linda A Donnels, dean of students at GWU. “We looked at the possibilities and found one that worked.”
Other administrators may find themselves examining contractive-inclusive health care plans soon. Lassow said students at other schools have contacted her to express interest in fighting for equal coverage, including the University of Virginia, the University of South Carolina, the University of Illinois and the Catholic University of America.
Additional universities may voluntarily make changes as the contraceptive issue is in the spotlight.
A few months prior to the George Washington University decision, University of Delaware student Karen Gaffney requested that the university cover contraceptives under its student health plan. Planned Parenthood of Delaware advocated for Gaffney and the other students, which led to the university voluntarily adding contraceptive coverage to its plan.
“It’s a huge problem,” Lee said of the lack of coverage for women’s contraceptives. “Because of the George Washington example, female students have become more aware of the inequities. They have looked at their plans and want to see some changes.”
Religious Institutions Are Not Exempt
The situation at Catholic University and Georgetown University, both in Washington, is different than that of the state schools as their health plans prohibit contraceptives in accordance with Roman Catholic doctrine. The schools maintain that they have a legal right to follow their religious mission.
Lassow argues that there is no exemption to Titles VII and IX for Catholic educational institutions, particularly when they accept federal funds. Almost every public and private university in the country accepts some form of federal funds, most often as part of work-study programs.
Only 1,500 of GWU’s 20,000 students are enrolled in the plan that was changed, according to Donnels. Most others are covered by their parents’ or employer’s health policies. Approximately one-third of U.S. universities offer students optional prescription drug coverage and about half of those plans cover contraceptives, according to Stephen L. Beckley Associates, Inc., a health care management and benefit consulting firm.
Some schools have argued that low-cost birth control pills are offered through student health clinics. Law and health care advocates don’t accept that argument. Lassow said that at George Washington, the wait to get an appointment with a doctor can be weeks away.
“It looks good on paper, but not in practice,” she said. “For too long, women’s health has been given second-class status. But when Viagra came on the market and health insurance started to cover it, women began to ask: ‘Why don’t you cover my pills?’ Now we are beginning to get some answers.”
Kimberly Wilmot Voss has been a journalist for the past decade. She is a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
For more information:
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice:
Planned Parenthood Federation of America:
Cover My Pills: