WASHINGTON – Insurance companies would be barred from denying coverage to victims of domestic violence under a bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. Constance Morella and 34 other House members.
Morella, a Bethesda Republican, said the bill is needed because studies indicate that 24 percent of insurance companies regularly deny or cancel coverage and increase rates for domestic violence victims.
The studies, conducted in 1995 by the insurance commissioners of Pennsylvania and Kansas, also showed that women are afraid to report abuse because they fear they will lose their insurance.
Rep. Bernard Sanders, a bill co-sponsor, agreed with the studies. “When insurance companies deny, drop or charge more for coverage of victims of domestic violence … someone who already has reason to fear for her life has one more reason to fear telling someone,” he said.
A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Vermont Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat.
John Lobert, a senior vice president at the National Association of Independent Insurers, said the issue should be examined but disagreed that any discrimination is taking place.
“I just think they are wrong about what’s really happening,” said Lobert, whose group represents more than 560 insurers.
He added that domestic violence should not be the sole factor weighed by insurance companies when they’re deciding who to cover. But, he said, surrounding circumstances, such as repeated incidents that lead to medical treatment or home damage, are legitimate criteria.
Under the congressional proposals, insurers would be barred from using domestic violence as a criteria to deny, terminate or limit coverage for health, life, property, auto or disability insurance.
Insurers also would be prevented from denying specific claims, charging higher premium rates or terminating coverage for a victim where coverage was issued in the abuser’s name.
Abuse-related material would have to be kept confidential by insurers. They could not disclose or transfer the material unless it was related to current health care.
Property insurance issued to shelters would also be protected, Morella said. The plan would prohibit discrimination against third parties in relationships with abuse victims.
If the proposal passes, the Federal Trade Commission would be authorized to investigate insurers. The FTC could fine companies up to $10,000 for each violation and require that relief be paid to victims.
Morella said insurers would save money by complying with the proposal because women would be more free to take preventive measures. An estimated 4 million women are physically abused by their husbands or boyfriends each year, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a nonprofit educational group based in San Francisco. A woman is abused every 9 seconds, according to the group. -30-