Nation - Wisconsin Mayor calls on teacher union to drop Viagra lawsuit Reinstating coverage would cost district $786,000 a year

By Ryan J. Foley

Associated Press Writer

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Breaking with his own supporters, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett asked the Milwaukee teachers union Tuesday to drop its lawsuit seeking taxpayer-funded erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra.

The Milwaukee mayor said he was "surprised and disappointed" to learn about the lawsuit at a time when Milwaukee Public Schools has laid off hundreds of teachers, including his own wife.

"As governor I will work to invest more resources to strengthen education in Wisconsin," Barrett told Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, in a letter. "However, I believe education dollars should be devoted to enhance performance in the classroom, and I urge you to drop the lawsuit."

Barrett noted a consultant's estimate that reinstating the drug coverage would cost the district up to $786,000 per year, money he said could be better spent on other priorities.

Reached on his cell phone, Langyel said he had not seen the letter and had no immediate comment. MTEA official Pat O'Mahar said the union had nothing to add beyond a statement released Friday.

In it, the union said the district's policy of excluding Viagra and similar pills "is discriminatory against men, and creates barriers to receiving necessary treatment." The union said the lawsuit would continue even as it was spending "time, attention and resources to the issue of layoffs."

Barrett's wife, Kris, is among the roughly 400 teachers who have been laid off recently by the district. His campaign says she worked for the district from 1984 to 1992 and then returned in 2007, most recently at H.W. Longfellow School.

Campaign spokesman Phil Walzak said Kris Barrett would love to have her job back, "but this is about the bigger picture -- about students and teachers and parents across the community."

In a deal with the union, the school district agreed in 2002 to cover up to six tablets per month for erectile dysfunction drugs in health plans that insure 10,000 employees, dependents and retirees. But after the pills became popular and expensive, the school board proposed eliminating the benefit in 2005 and an arbitrator agreed.

A lawsuit filed last month appeals a June decision by a state commission, which ruled the union couldn't pursue its case without identifying employees who have been injured by the change. The union argues the policy discriminates against male employees and the drugs are approved by federal regulators and recommended by the American Urological Association.

The school board says they are used primarily for recreational sex, not out of medical necessity.

The Milwaukee union is part of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the powerful teachers' union whose political action committee endorsed Barrett's campaign for governor in June.

Noting that endorsement, the campaign of Barrett's potential rival in the general election, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, last week tried to use the Viagra lawsuit to criticize Barrett. The campaign noted Walker has long sought to rein in generous public employee benefits.

Published: Thu, Aug 12, 2010