Insurance Companies Tell Congress: You Sell Us Your Soul, We’ll End Discrimination

Lois Uttley

Insurance companies would be happy to end their discrimination against women, their industry CEO says -- in return for a pledge from Congress that it will require every American to have health insurance, and that it won't create a public option.

How do we end insurance company
discrimination against women? 

Simple. Insurance companies
think such practices are wrong and would gladly end them, said Karen
Ignagni, President and Chief Executive Officer of America’s Health
Insurance Plans, in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee this

But, it seems there is a catch,
or two. First, Congress has to require that every American have health
insurance. Second, lawmakers must promise not to give private health
insurance plans any competition by creating a government-sponsored health
insurance option that might be cheaper and fairer. 

Of course, Ignagni wasn’t
quite that blatant about it. But, the message was pretty clear: the
insurance industry is so desperate to avoid competition from a proposed
public insurance plan that it will pledge to do away with a number of
longstanding, and outrageous, business practices.

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"Gender rating" in health

As a recent report from the
National Women’s Law Center
explains, private insurance companies
often charge women higher premiums than men in what is known
as the individual health insurance market. This is where women end up
if they want health insurance, but aren’t lucky enough to have access to it through an employer or union, and are not eligible for Medicaid or Medicare.
Almost six million women in this country have been forced to buy individual
insurance policies, often with extremely expensive premiums and poor

The practice of charging women
more than men is known as "gender rating." Historically, insurers
have justified it by citing women’s higher use of health care services,
such as for maternity care, compared to men. If you might use more health
care, you have to pay more, the insurers declare. They have similar
practices for other groups of people who tend to use more than an average
amount of health care. For example, older people may be charged more
than younger people through a practice referred to as "age rating."
These practices are prohibited in some states, but allowed in many.  

Massachusetts Senator John
Kerry has introduced legislation called the Women’s Health Insurance
Fairness Act that would prohibit insurers from charging women more than
men for individual health insurance. It would also require insurers
to provide maternity coverage, and stop insurers from refusing or limiting
coverage based on whether a woman is pregnant.  

Let’s make a deal

Faced with this legislation,
and with general public outrage about a number of insurance company
practices – including refusing coverage for "pre-existing conditions"
– America’s Health Insurance Plans are scrambling to offer Congress
a deal.  

They will agree to do away
with gender rating and other unpopular insurance company policies if
Congress enacts a health reform plan that does two key things: 1) Impose
a mandate on every American to have health insurance; and 2) Drop the
idea of creating a public plan option that would compete with private
health insurers.  

So, the insurance industry
CEO, Karen Ignagni, was all sweetness and agreeability on Capitol Hill
in a Senate hearing this week, when Senator Kerry pressed her on the
subject of gender rating. "Gender rating is a pretty common insurance
practice and women are charged higher premiums than men for identical
coverage," Kerry said. "So it seems to me that’s insurance discrimination." 

Ignagni readily agreed, saying
insurers already have proposals to do away with it: "We don’t believe
that gender should be a subject of rating," she said. "In our reforms,
we have not recommended that (it) be continued."

National Women’s Law Center
Co-President Marcia Greenberger rightly was delighted with this turnabout:
"Fortunately, the insurance industry finally came around to the unfairness
of charging women more for health insurance, and it’s about time,"
she said in a press release. "For too long, gender rating
has caused hardship to many thousands of women, who have either had
to forgo health insurance altogether, or sacrifice to cover the extra
premium cost."  

But, notice that Ignagni
did not
announce that the insurance industry would move to immediately
drop this discriminatory policy, which they could do tomorrow. Instead,
they are offering to accept stricter regulation of the private insurance
industry in exchange for having the public plan option dropped. And,
they would love to have a mandate requiring all Americans to get health
insurance, as is the case in Massachusetts now under that state’s
reform plan, since, absent a public option, Americans would then be forced to purchase it from the insurers. 

This kind of a trade-off would
be a bad deal for women, and a bad deal for all Americans. Ending discrimination
against women should not be contingent on giving private health insurance
companies a monopoly to sell us high-priced health coverage. Gender
rating can and should be ended as soon as possible, either by the insurance
companies themselves or through enactment of Kerry’s legislation.  

The public plan option is a
good idea, and should be explored fully by Congressional committees
working on health reform legislation. As President Obama has suggested,
a little competition from a public plan might be just what we need –
and give women now struggling to afford individual health insurance
a much better alternative.  

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