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Rape Victims Charged Up to $1,200 for Rape Kits

Rape is not something you should budget for. Yet some rape victims, unlike victims of other crimes, have to pay for basic evidence collection.

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At least one state, West Virginia, won’t cover emergency birth control or emergency medication to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Jeffrey Kessler, Democratic chairman of West Virginia’s Senate Judiciary Committee, said he doesn’t recall any efforts to change this law and suspects the provision was included for budgetary reasons.

"It would seem to me to be archaic and something we would take a look at," he said, adding that a victim willing to press charges could apply for assistance from the state victims’ compensation fund.

While these states are technically compliant with VAWA, they are dodging the spirit of the law, said Jennifer Pollitt-Hill, former executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which helped implement the new VAWA requirements.

"States are settling for the letter of the law rather than doing what’s best for victims," Pollitt-Hill said.

IN ILLINOIS, A BUREAUCRATIC TANGLE

Much of the confusion over who pays for what stems from overlapping layers of bureaucracy, Pollitt-Hill said. Hospitals must navigate federal, state and local rules, causing "confusion within states about how it’s done," she said.

In Illinois, victim advocates complain that some hospital billing departments occasionally send exam bills directly to victims-a problem VAWA was supposed to prevent. At least three Chicago hospitals send repeated bills to victims who don’t pay and turn over some to collection agencies, said Kris Krafka, a legal advocate at Life Span, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps domestic violence and rape victims.

Part of the problem, Krafka said, is that billing departments often don’t know which patients are rape victims because hospital paperwork might not include that information.

The billing problems don’t appear to be malicious, Krafka said, but the process hurts victims nonetheless. "It’s going to keep happening unless there’s repercussions for hospitals when they do the wrong thing," she said.

The problem has been known for years, according to Rape Victim Advocates, a nonprofit that is contracted by 12 Chicago-area hospitals to provide crisis support for rape victims.

We asked the group to review its files from this year to determine how often it gets reports of hospital billing problems. Between January and June of this year, Rape Victim Advocates received about 20 complaints from victims who were billed for hospital services, which typically include an exam, lab tests and treatment for injuries, said the group’s executive director, Sharmili Majmudar.

Once the group notifies a hospital of a billing problem, the hospital usually stops pursuing the victim, Majmudar said.

"We make every effort to ensure all [our] patients are treated in accordance with the law," said a spokeswoman for Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, one of the city’s largest private hospitals. "If a rape victim has inadvertently been billed for a forensic exam or rape kit, we ask that they contact the hospital’s billing department to have the charge removed and any payment refunded."

Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which reimburses hospitals that bill the state for forensic exams, said the department has received only a "handful" of complaints about hospitals mistreating rape victims in the last 10 years, though she acknowledged the department doesn’t keep a record of all the complaints it receives.

"In the rare occasion when an eligible survivor is billed for sexual assault-related services, [the department] works to quickly resolve these errors," Thompson said.

NEXT STEP

Victims’ advocates contend Congress needs to bolster VAWA to rid it of loopholes that make for unfair billing.

Policy experts also have suggested that lawmakers craft incentives for states to comply with VAWA rather than threatening financial cuts to law enforcement grants if they don’t.

 
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