Bill may close gender gap in health costs

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Supporters and opponents of a new bill that would prohibit health insurance providers from charging women higher premiums gathered last night for a hearing at the State House to testify in front of the House Corporations Committee while the bill remains on hold.

“I can’t believe we missed this one,” said Barbara Colt, former director of the Rhode Island Health Centers Association, who said she was shocked that this practice, called gender rating, went under the radar during the peak of sexual discrimination reform. 

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charleston, New Shoreham, South Kingston and Westerly, said 95 percent of insurance companies charge females aged 21 to 55 higher premiums than men, according to national actuarial studies. The percentage increase varies by age group, with companies charging between 6 and 45 percent higher premiums for women under 25 than their male counterparts.

Walsh called the rationale behind the higher charges “really interesting.” In addition to medical expenses associated with maternity, insurers charge women preemptively for greater average frequency of health checkups than men. Walsh said the extra charges are ultimately counterintuitive, adding that frequent visits to physicians result in better prevention and earlier diagnosis of disease. “It saves insurers money overall,” she said.

Walsh said the higher premiums are further burdensome on the female demographic, as women are less likely to have jobs with employer-provided health insurance, are more likely to hold part-time jobs and comprise more of the poverty rate than men.

Kate Brock, executive director of the liberal lobbying coalition Ocean State Action, said she is met with “shock and outrage” whenever she explains gender rating to the coalition’s members and others. “It violates basic values of fairness,” she said, adding that women should not face sole financial burden for pregnancy-related expenses. “Last time I checked, men have something to do with women getting pregnant.”

Brock said the consequences  of gender rating trickle into unfair hiring practices, which she said she finds understandable as an employer. “I know that my premiums will be higher if I hire a woman over a man,” she said.

“I’m here representing myself,” said Nicole Casinger, a local, who called higher premiums “both sexist and classist.” She said the prospect of paying for health insurance after becoming financially-independent was the “scariest thought in the world,” adding that many of her friends have chosen to remain uninsured due to the high premiums and avoid biking to work for fear of being injured.

“I’m going to be very popular today,” said Terrence Martesian of America’s Health Insurance Plans, one of the few speakers who testified in opposition to the bill. Martesian said the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take effect in 2014, already includes a federal ban on gender rating along with ‘safety-net’ subsidies not included in the state bill.

Shawn Donahue, a lobbyist for Rhode Island Blue Cross Blue Shield, said gender disparities are reversed in car and life insurance, which typically charge men higher rates and are much less contended. He added that Rhode Island’s lack of health care mandates would make the bill a failure if enacted. A similar bill passed in Maine, which also lacks mandates, caused premium prices to “skyrocket,” he said, and it was ultimately repealed. “Health care becomes less affordable for men and women,” he said, adding that the resulting higher prices for men after the elimination of gender rating drives many to drop insurance, which ultimately increases premiums for the remaining insured individuals. 

“Will this create a cost shift? Absolutely,” said President of Rhode Island National Organization for Women Carolyn Mark. “We are not looking for special treatment. We are looking for equal treatment.” 

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