Dazed and Abused

State insurance watchdogs are looking into one of the most sensitive topics in the industry: whether companies that provide health, homeowners and life insurance discriminate against victims of domestic violence. The question, which has recently drawn the interest of Oregon's U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden, has been nagging at state officials since 1994, when someone broke into the home of a Corvallis, Ore. woman and set it on fire. The arsonist turned out to be her ex-husband of 20 years, who had made several attempts on her life. Although the ex-husband was later convicted and sent to prison, that wasn't the end of her troubles. After paying out almost $10,000 in fire damage, Allstate Insurance canceled her homeowners policy. Because of the arson, no other companies were willing to provide coverage. The woman was repeatedly rejected by insurers until this year. "I feel emotionally abused all over again," she later told congressional investigators. "I in no way played a role in the arson of the house other than as a victim. Yet denial of coverage is holding me responsible for the actions of someone else." Although there are no other specific cases in Oregon, state officials are taking this potential problem seriously. Prodded by the Democratic congressional delegation, the state Insurance Division is conducting a survey of carriers to see how many of them use domestic violence as an underwriting criterion. Joel Ario, of the division's consumer protection department, says there's a knotty problem at the heart of this issue: What constitutes discrimination? "What insurers want to say is, 'What we're doing has nothing to do with the fact that she's a victim of domestic abuse. It's just that someone whose house has been burned three times is a bad risk,'" Ario says. Insurance companies hotly deny that they treat the victims of domestic violence differently from anyone else. "Absolutely not," says Bob Quigley, regional underwriting manager for Allstate. "We look at the loss itself, not what caused it." (Quigley told WW he couldn't comment on the incident in Corvallis.) The logic of the insurance companies is brutally simple. Someone who's been in a dozen car wrecks in the past three years is not a good risk, regardless of the reasons. Same goes for anyone who's the target of arson or a frequent visitor to the emergency room. To women's advocates, these policies amount to gender redlining. "It's like de facto segregation," says Judith Armatta, former attorney for the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. "If women worry they can lose their coverage, they won't seek the help they need." Oregon's lawmakers have already been tinkering with insurance regulations. Senate Bill 152, passed last session, prohibits insurers from looking at past medical history in group health insurance (the kind you get through your job). This means that if you're part of a group health plan, you can't be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. But there are no such restrictions on health insurance sold to individuals who are unemployed, self-employed or otherwise not covered by a group policy. There are also no restrictions on life or property insurance. Although there's no evidence of widespread insurance bias in Oregon, anecdotal reports from the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia suggest that the problem has national dimensions: * A woman in Santa Cruz was repeatedly turned down for health insurance because her medical records detailed beatings by her husband. * A Minnesota women's shelter couldn't get health insurance for its employees because virtually all had been formerly abused by their husbands. * A child in Washington state twice was denied health insurance because he had been abused in a day-care center. A score of states from Alaska to Arizona are now pondering legislation to outlaw discrimination against the victims of domestic violence, and DeFazio and Wyden have both introduced federal legislation. In Oregon, state Sen. Jeannette Hamby says she's ready to explore legislation to expand state protections granted by SB152. The controversy over domestic violence reports also raises larger issues about the privacy and confidentiality of medical records. Several private companies now collect -- and sell -- medical information. For example, the Medical Information Bureau of Westwood, Mass., has amassed data on more than 15 million Americans, including some Oregonians, and currently adds about 3 million records a year. Although MIB will not release medical information without written permission from the subject, many companies now ask prospective policy holders to release those records as a matter of course. In the meantime, advocates fear that the insurance issue will prevent women from trying to get out of abusive relationships. "It's important for them to know that we're not going to penalize them for seeking help," says Jennifer Webber of the Oregon Women's Commission. "So often economic issues are a large part of being able to escape domestic violence, and insurance is a part of that." The insurance division expects to issue a report later this month.

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