DOES YOUR employer-provided health insurance plan cover the medical costs of pregnancy? If you are a female worker, it has been clear since Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 that your policy must cover these costs in the same manner as it does other conditions requiring medical care. But if you are a male worker you had no assurance--until a Supreme Court decision this week--that pregnancy coverage would be extended to your wife under your family health plan. Now the court has held that an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of sex in conferring this important benefit. The same coverage must be provided to a male employee's family that is provided to a female employee's family.
The result is just what Congress expected--and intended--five years ago. Why, then, has there been expensive litigation, a series of conflicting court decisions in the federal circuits and another case clogging the Supreme Court's docket? Because members of Congress find it easier to confer benefits than to deal with the nitty-gritty of how the thing will work and how it will be paid for--difficult decisions often left to administrative agencies and the courts. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is just such a classic case of buck-passing.
The legislative history of this bill is full of expressions of good intent. Pregnancy ought to be treated like any other condition requiring medical care, and employee health plans ought to cover it, we are told. There are numerous references to the rights of women workers, but nothing is said about the rights of their male counterparts. Witnesses before House and Senate committees raised the question, and a few brave members even asked for a clarification of congressional intent. But they were brushed aside. The reason, of course, was money.
If the law was intended to cover only female workers of childbearing age then the costs to employers would be manageable--about $130 million a year is one estimate given in the Senate committee report. If, however, the law extended pregnancy benefits to the family plans of all workers it might cost employers billions. Either way, Congress had something to lose. Limit coverage to female employees and offend tens of millions of working men and their families; admit that the law would cover every worker equally and assume responsibility for passing on tremendous costs to the private sector. Yes, litigation is expensive and time-consuming, and uncertainty is unfair to affected American families. But political expediency dictated a solution: let the Supreme Court take the burden and the blame. Monday, it did. The court decided the case in a fair and quite predictable way.