State benefits manager investigating effects of federal birth control ruling

Benefits programs for Nevada state workers include contraceptives, as ordered in a federal ruling last week, except for ones provided by a Reno Catholic hospital.

The ruling was issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this past week and could affect health insurance programs nationwide. That ruling said employers "may not discriminate in their health insurance plan by denying benefits for prescription contraceptives when they provide benefits for comparable drugs and devices."

The benefits programs Nevada provides for state workers all cover contraceptives except one - the newly signed agreement with St. Mary's HMO in Reno.

As a Catholic hospital, St. Mary's declined to provide contraceptives. Several female state workers have already complained about that exclusion.

Benefits Manager Jan Marie Reed said contraceptives are available through the state's Preferred Provider program and from the HMO in southern Nevada.

She said she doesn't know how many state workers will be affected yet because most workers just picked the program they want and her staff doesn't have a count of how many people signed up with St. Mary's.

"We went back to our consulting firm and we asked St. Mary's what it's take on the ruling is," said Reed.

She said the state doesn't yet know specifically what its options are or how the federal government will apply the EEOC ruling. She said they also don't know how long the state would be given to comply.

Ellen Vargyas, an EEOC lawyer, said the ruling is binding only on the two women involved in that specific case.

"The hope is that employers and employees will look at this and want to comply with the law, that this will be their guide," she said in an interview with the New York Times.

The debate over contraceptive coverage became controversial after insurance companies began covering Viagra in 1998. Women's groups argued that was unfair since many of those same companies refused to cover contraceptives for women.

The ruling excluding contraceptives coverage violates the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act is the first ruling by a federal agency which says health plans can't exclude contraceptive coverage if similar health services are covered.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., applauded the decision as a significant victory for women unable to get health coverage of critical contraceptive care.

"I have always said that it is unconscionable that a man can get covered for a prescription like Viagra and women can't get coverage for their most fundamental health care needs," he said.

He said, however, that Congress needs to take the issue a step further.

"We need to make sure every American woman gets the health care coverage she deserves by passing our legislation to require all private health plans to cover contraceptives," said Reid.


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