July 25, 2005

Court rules railroad must cover contraception

By Daniel Sorid

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled that the
nation's largest railroad cannot exclude prescription
contraception benefits to female union workers, calling
pregnancy a medical condition no less of a health threat to
women than other ailments.

The decision by Judge Laurie Smith Camp of the U.S.
District Court in Nebraska was hailed by advocates for women's
health rights, who said the Union Pacific Corp. would be forced
to cover contraception in all of its worker health plans.

Roberta Riley, a staff attorney for Planned Parenthood of
Western Washington and a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case,
said the railroad, the largest in North America, is one of the
last big U.S. employers to refuse contraception coverage.

A spokesman for Omaha-based Union Pacific, Mark Davis, said
the company planned to appeal the decision.

The railroad's union employees have "some of the most
gracious health and welfare benefits in American industry,"
Davis said, adding that the union had not sought contraception
coverage for its members during negotiations.

In court, the company had argued that excluding all
contraceptive benefits to both men and women was equal
treatment and that contraception is not medically necessary
since fertility is normal.

In her decision, Smith Camp wrote the railroad's policy
constituted discrimination against women and violated Title VII
of the Civil Right Act. To illustrate her point, the judge
described a hypothetical disease afflicting both men and women
and carrying the similar burdens of pregnancy.

"His pain increases and accelerates over approximately 15
hours," the judge wrote in the hypothetical case, "as his
genital opening, usually the size of a pencil lead, is
stretched to a diameter of 10 centimeters."

This hypothetical illness, the judge wrote, raises the
question of "whether the Plans treat women who have the risk of
pregnancy less favorably than the Plans treat other people."

The railroad's policy violates federal law, the judge
wrote, "because it treats medical care women need to prevent
pregnancy less favorably than it treats medical care needed to
prevent other medical conditions that are no greater threat to
employees' health plan than is pregnancy."

Some of Union Pacific's health plans cover prescription
medication for male-pattern baldness and erectile dysfunction,
the judge noted.

Granting a motion for summary judgment, Smith Camp said the
court would schedule a hearing to decide issues of injunctive
relief, damages and attorneys fees.

The two lead plaintiffs in the case, Brandi Standridge and
Kenya Phillips, represent a class of current and former Union
Pacific employees. Union Pacific employs 48,000 people and, of
those, 1,300 are unionized women, according to court papers.

Recent studies show that nearly nine in 10 employee health
plans cover contraception, an increase from just two in 10 as
recently as the late 1990s, said Riley.

The increase, she said, can be attributed to the
ramifications of a 2001 federal court case, Erickson v. Bartell
Drug Co., which found that excluding contraceptives from
prescription plans constitutes sex discrimination.

"I certainly hope it's the nail in the coffin on this
issue," she added.

(additional reporting by Nick Zieminski in New York)