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The Drive for 'Contraceptive Equity'
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It's called "contraceptive equity," and it's one of the newest and most important demands being raised by union activists.

They're insisting that employers, whose health insurance plans pay for many preventive drugs, devices and services, cover the cost of drugs, devices and services aimed at the unwanted pregnancies that inflict such an emotional and financial toll on millions of American women and their families.

More than half the plans do not include such coverage, notes the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUE), which is leading the drive for "contraceptive equity."

That's true even of plans in which the impotence drug Viagra is among the prescription medicines that are covered. As a CLUW activist advised employers with such plans: "If you can pay to crank it up, you'd better pay far the consequences."

CLUW cites rulings made over the past two years by the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several courts. They held that employers who deny contraceptive benefits while providing benefits for other preventive care are illegally discriminating against women.

Federal agencies and those of 20 state governments provide contraceptive benefits. The states also have enacted laws requiring employers who provide preventive care benefits to include contraceptive coverage.

Problem is, says CLUE, the laws and the court and federal rulings are only laxly enforced.

CLUW is pushing hard for much stronger enforcement, as well as for enactment of a federal law. But the main effort is to help unions win contraceptive benefits in their contract negotiations with employers.

Studies show the cost would be less than $1.50 a month per employee, less than 1 percent of the average cost of health insurance overall. And even that small cost could be offset -- and then some -- by reducing the number of employee pregnancies and thus absenteeism and avoiding the medical costs related to unintended pregnancies.

The ever-rising cost of health insurance could be reduced, too. The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that a sexually active woman not using contraceptives over a five-year period could become pregnant at least four times at a cost for care of $14,000 to her health insurance provider. Five years worth of the most common contraceptive pill would cost about $2,300.

Certainly the health care costs of women workers would be reduced. CLUW notes that "women pay on average 68 percent more out of pocket for health care expenses than men -- largely as a result of having to pay for contraception out of pocket." Overall, their out-of-pocket payments average nearly $600 a year.

CLUW, with 20,000 members, has set out to marshal broad support for the ambitious -- and long overdue -- drive for "contraceptive equity," organizing forums around the country to address the issue with a wide variety of union activists.

The drive already has won the backing of the AFL-CIO and many of its affiliated unions. That significantly includes the 1.4 million-member Teamsters and 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

An important side effect of the drive could be to bring more women into the labor movement by providing them with a vital issue that seriously affects them. Currently, only about 12 percent of working women belong to unions.

Few would dispute, in any case, the conclusion of CLUW President Gloria T. Johnson that "there simply is no excuse for excluding women from health care coverage in an area so important to them and to our society."

Copyright Dick Meister