Denied: Domestic Violence Victims Have “Pre-Existing Condition”

Amie Newman

Why do we need a public option? Because profit drives insurance companies to complete and utter insanity causing them to claim that being the victim of domestic violence or being pregnant can be considered "pre-existing conditions." 

According to a blog post on the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) site, "In DC and eight states, health insurance companies can deny coverage to victims of domestic violence because they have a "pre-existing condition."

Yes, you read that correctly. Insurance companies have looked at their profit margins and decided that, in fact, a person whose been battered and needs health care is just not good for business. Of course, as Amanda notes on Pandagon,

"Besides the immediately obvious bad effects of this—particularly
since a woman who has been abused before is in serious danger of
getting severely hurt by the abuser, especially if she tries to
leave—there are a number of unintended consequences.  Obviously, the
major one is that the fear of losing insurance coverage might drive
victims to avoid reaching out for help, and it may even mean that they
don’t get treatment for their injuries after an abusive incident.  And
of course, the less a woman reaches out for help, the less likely she
is to get out of the situation." 

It’s not only domestic violence victims, of course, who are effectively shut out of our health care system because of lack of access to insurance coverage, under our current system. According to SEIU, "From cancer patients
to the elderly suffering from arthritis, these organizations have
padded their profit margins by limiting coverage to patients deemed
"high risk" because of their medical condition." Heroine and union activist Crystal Lee Sutton ("Norma Rae") died last week after a battle with cancer in which she was forced to go two months without life-saving medication because her insurance company initially refused to pay. 

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In fact, pregnancy can be and is considered a pre-existing condition to some health insurance companies. Pregnant and seeking individual health care coverage? Well, you know, theoretically insurance company execs and Republican politicians want you and your baby to be healthy (tossing around "ideas" like family values and being pro-life), but you know it just doesn’t work for the bottom line. You understand, right? How would the free-market survive if women and babies were allowed access to care that might raise costs for insurance companies? In fact, all of us "healthy" folk would be penalized for your choice – your personal, individual choice to become pregnant under this system. Private industry should not have to pay for your personal decision to become pregnant or stay in a relationship in which you are a victim of domestic violence.  

All of this is to say that SEIU is spearheading its own health reform campaign aimed at Congress, with an emphasis on Republicans. Back in 2006, a group of ten Republicans voted against (!) efforts to legislate health insurance companies’ despicable practice of denying coverage to domestic violence victims. SEIU is encouraging people to pass health care reform legislation and put an end, in eight states and Washington DC, to using "domestic violence victim" as a pre-existing condition. 

Commentary Violence

Allegations of Workplace Sexual Harassment at FitzGibbon Media: We’ve Seen This Movie Too Many Times Before

Jodi Jacobson

When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Last week, the widely respected progressive consulting firm FitzGibbon Media abruptly closed its doors after allegations surfaced of sexual harassment and abuse of numerous women by Trevor FitzGibbon, founder and owner of the firm.

The final straw came when, at a recent staff retreat in Austin, Texas, FitzGibbon allegedly propositioned Sierra Pedraja, who had applied for a job with the company. Pedraja reported the incident to other FitzGibbon Media staffers, prompting revelations by numerous employees and clients of creepy behavior, harassment, and assault allegedly perpetrated by FitzGibbon. (Full disclosure: Rewire was for a brief time a client of FitzGibbon Media, but did not work directly with Trevor.) FitzGibbon is accused of sexually harassing a number of women and sexually assaulting at least two others, all while running a firm with clients such as UltraViolet and NARAL Pro-Choice America, both of which work to advance women’s rights. The women on staff reportedly were too afraid for their jobs or too intimated by FitzGibbon’s professional reputation in the progressive community to speak up.

We now know that Trevor FitzGibbon’s reputation should have included “serial harasser.” It turns out he was also accused of sexually harassing some of his colleagues in a previous position at another well-known and otherwise well-regarded firm.

How can a guy known for this kind of reported abuse go from one place to another and not suffer consequences? And why are the victims of such harassment often so reluctant to report it?

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To a large degree, the answers to both questions are the same: When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man, many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when, among other things, their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Too often, in my personal experience, victims of harassment or assault feel that they are largely invisible, and abusers are made to appear invincible. In many organizations, charismatic leaders hold the power and the purse strings, leaving staff vulnerable to abuse. And our society’s tendency to lionize specific individuals gives them an aura of being invincible, especially when they are a widely celebrated in a specific field or community. The degree of invisibility versus invincibility seems to me inversely related to the height of the pedestal on which certain leaders—or entertainers, athletes, politicians—are put. The more power the perpetrator has, the less likely the victim is to come forward. It’s at once obvious and can’t be overstated.

The first time I can remember someone touching me inappropriately was in religious school. I was 11 years old and the clergyman who ran our school was in his late 60s. He seemed nice and caring. But he also constantly rubbed my back, shoulders, and back of my bra. I hated it. But I was 11, somehow I felt ashamed, and I never thought of telling anyone. I came from what can only be called a dysfunctional family. I didn’t know what was normal and what was not. I just tried to stay out of the way and not be alone with him because he always got too close.

The second time was at summer camp, when the 70-something director, widely respected by parents, did much the same thing, regularly, to female campers. He’d come through the dining hall, circling the girls’ tables, touching us, rubbing our shoulders and our bra straps. We all hated it. But we were told by counselors to just to get over it. “Oh, that’s just Tex,” they’d say. “He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s a great guy.” Translation: Don’t make waves.

The third time was at Yale University, to which I’d been accepted for grad school. During an orientation visit, I met with the professor who would have been my adviser. He suggested we grab some lunch and talk about the program, and at his direction we ended up at a small Italian restaurant nearby campus. At that point in my life, I understood immediately what was happening when he slid too close on the half-circle banquette and put his hand on my thigh under the table cloth. I moved away, putting as much distance between us as I could. I later learned he had a reputation for seeking out and having sex with students.

Rather than enrolling, that summer I gave up my space at Yale in favor of a job in D.C., yet found myself back in the same place, rhetorically speaking. I was one of two young women on the research staff at a prominent think tank. It was the kind of place filled with ambitious young professionals who were given the chance to write and publish on important topics. The head of the organization was considered a “genius.” Reporters ate out of his hands. Celebrities and important people visited our offices. And most of the staff wanted nothing more than to be favored by the boss.

But the inappropriate behavior started right away. He would call me into his office to discuss a project, close the door, and sit way too close on the couch, pressing his leg against mine. It made me grossly uncomfortable and really, all I wanted was to do my job. I tried to express my concern early on to a vice president of the organization, a woman, but it was quickly made clear to me that “my discomfort” was my problem and I should not rock the boat.

I learned from this that you weren’t supposed to complain when he remarked on your looks, or when you were repeatedly asked to work late or come into the office on the weekend only to find yourself alone with him. You didn’t say anything when you found him first standing in the doorway of your small office, then coming in and closing the door behind “just to discuss the findings in your paper.” You did what you could to keep it completely professional, and then said you had to use the restroom, or someone was waiting for you, or you really needed to get home for some reason, any reason, so you could get out of there. You didn’t react when people talked about all the women in the field with whom he’d had affairs. You were told you lacked a sense of humor when you couldn’t laugh it off. And when it finally became too much, you left.

I left knowing that no matter how renowned, smart, well-regarded, or successful a person is, he or she can still use the power of their position to abuse someone else, to make a staff person uncomfortable or worse, and then make it look as though the employee was the real problem. I also learned that the more widely heralded the abuser, the harder it is to expose the abuse because there is a sort of protective shield that surrounds such prominent people, created by the board members, funders, colleagues, or others invested in the reputation of that particular leader by virtue of their own proximity to or investment in genius or celebrity. The protective layer surrounding “invincible” people also invariably includes other leaders in the same community from whom you might later seek a job, but by then you’re already labeled a troublemaker.

From what little I know, the story of what reportedly happened at FitzGibbon Media tracks closely with my experiences: Women (and in this case at least it was women) working in a widely lauded firm on issues about which they care deeply suddenly found themselves put in uncomfortable and degrading positions of having to fend off the boss or another superior. And they knew or at least felt speaking up would get them nowhere but unemployed.

In this case, history suggests there’s a good reason for FitzGibbon employees to be skeptical of confronting him.

That’s because FitzGibbon had been “disciplined” for predatory behavior while at Fenton Communications, another well-known media firm that bills itself as “social change communications.”

As Amanda Terkel, Ryan Grim, and Sam Stein wrote at the Huffington Post:

During his prior employment at Fenton Communications, a major PR firm, a female colleague accused him of sexual harassment, Bill Werde, Fenton’s current CEO, confirmed to The Huffington Post on Thursday night.

“The firm immediately investigated the claims and brought in a nationally recognized workplace expert to conduct a day long training with all employees in the Washington office, focused on preventing and handling any incidences of sexual harassment,” Werde said in a statement. “Employees were also offered follow-up consultations with the expert.”

At the time of that complaint, FitzGibbon was a senior staffer, according to a source who worked with him. He was disciplined, the source said, but not fired. After the accusation and the firm’s investigation, other female employees came forward with similar harassment complaints. Fenton’s leadership closely monitored FitzGibbon’s behavior, Werde said. And for the remaining years of his tenure, which ended in 2008, Werde said that “no other complaints were brought to the company’s attention.”

An “expert” was brought in who apparently did not recommend removing the abuser from the place of his abuse? Fenton’s leadership “closely monitored” FitzGibbon’s behavior? Really?

Here is how that translates for me. Someone who was allegedly harassing and exhibiting at least abusive behavior toward several female employees was “disciplined” but retained his position in the firm, presumably including his pay, benefits, retirement accounts, vacation, and sick leave. He went on sabbatical and later returned to work, likely in close proximity to the women he’d harassed. Fenton’s Werde notes that “for the remaining years of his term, no complaints were brought to the company’s attention.” To which I feel like the appropriate response is “Duh.” Why would anyone bring anything to the attention of the same largely white male leadership that basically gave a pass to a guy who serially harassed several female employees because he was apparently too valuable to lose?

In situations where these conditions flourish, people facing abuse are not going to come forward, especially not when the abuser is apparently or ostensibly so irreplaceable that the health, well-being, and security of the people who support that work are secondary considerations if they are considered at all, or when the admission of abuse becomes an obstacle to the reputation of the firm.

The stark reality of what happens to staff in these situations is being played out today.

“Junior staffers are living paycheck to paycheck,” Ginny Simmons, former vice president, digital, at FitzGibbon Media told Rewire. “And the last one will be Dec 31. We didn’t get the bonuses that were owed to us and many were planning for. We got no severance. No advance notice.”

“Our healthcare ends Jan 31,” she continued. “One staffer is 6 months pregnant with twins. She is very worried about getting a new job at this point. We have two staffers who are recent cancer survivors who are about to lose their health insurance.”

“Nothing is OK about anything that has happened,” Simmons concluded. To help out, allies have set up a fund for the former employees as they attempt to find new work.

The progressive community is about social change. Too often, though, that change is envisioned as creating a world that does not apply to what happens in the domain of those in power. “The world,” however, does indeed include what happens on your watch and under your proverbial roof. The people who work with and for you are not any different—no less deserving of fair pay, equal rights, health-care benefits, family leave, or protection from harassment, abuse, and violence—than are the populations for which your clients pay you to advocate.

And yet, there are too many stories even in the progressive community of egregious behavior we would not accept elsewhere.

Sometimes it feels like nothing will ever change. I don’t have the answers to whether and how it will. I would like not to feel that things I experienced years ago are still happening to people today, at least not within the community that in principle ostensibly stands against violence and harassment of all kinds. And yet here we are.

Still, I am very cautiously optimistic. There is, right now, a lot of soul-searching going on in the progressive community and a great deal of discussion underway, some of it appropriately angry, hurt, and disappointed. Individuals and groups are grappling with what it takes first to stop abuse from happening, and to ensure that no victim of abuse is made invisible or feels they have nowhere to go.

These are as yet just conversations, so caution is warranted. But it is past time for all individuals, groups, and leaders in the progressive community to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be progressive? Are we as progressive inside as we strive to be outside? What is needed to ensure all employees entering new jobs find a welcoming environment; that all employees know their rights and have mechanisms to exercise them; and that every employee is “visible,” while no one is seen as “invincible?”

There are no easy answers to any of this. Instead, it will take hard work and constant vigilance from within and throughout our community to be the change we claim to want in the wider world. Six months from now Rewire will come back to you with a report on what has come out of this, because unless we all hold ourselves accountable, no one will be.

Commentary Violence

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Video of Domestic Violence Wasn’t a ‘Mistake’

Jessica Luther

This video, which spread like wildfire across social media last week, was just the latest example of the way organizations continuously downplay the impact of domestic violence and rape culture. In turn, this betrays how little we as a society care for, or even think of, victims of interpersonal violence.

A minute-long video played during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff game against the Chicago Bulls last week started off in a cute, albeit corny, fashion: An apron-clad woman and a man wearing an “All In” Cleveland Cavaliers shirt begin to dance to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” mimicking the moves Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze made famous in Dirty Dancing, as a Cavs game plays on TV in the background.

Then, the woman removes her apron, revealing a Bulls shirt underneath. Her partner sees the shirt, gets upset, and throws her away from him and onto the floor. Looking over and down at her, he says with anger and disbelief, “Bulls fan? I didn’t know you were a Bulls fan.” She is lying on the ground, in obvious pain, grunting and grasping her arms. Over the image of her writhing on the ground, the words, “All In” appear, accompanied by a voiceover that warns, “When it’s playoff basketball time, you have to be all in. Don’t make the same mistake she made.”

The final shot is of her next to the man on the sofa, his arm wrapped around her shoulders as she holds an ice bag to her injured head. Her Bulls shirt is gone, replaced by one supporting the Cleveland Cavaliers. He looks at her and says, “I thought you were all in.” She replies, “Well, I’m all in now.” Gesturing to the screen with the hand not holding the ice, she says, “Let’s just watch the game.” The final image is a close up on the man’s satisfied face as he says, “Go Cavs.”

This video, which spread like wildfire across social media last week, was just the latest example of the way organizations continuously downplay the impact of domestic violence and rape culture. In turn, this betrays how little we as a society care for, or even think of, victims of interpersonal violence.

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The video, a parody of a United Healthcare commercial in which a couple has a moment of miscommunication and a failed lift before ending up injured on the floor, was shown on the Cavaliers arena’s Humongotron: a “four-sided scoreboard,” according to the team’s media guide, that “is the largest center-hung screen in any arena in the country.” The screens are all high-definition, and “are tilted and uniquely curved to provide optimal viewing angles for all fans in the arena.” In other words, if you were in view of the Humongotron that night, you saw the video.

And that video, unmistakably, portrayed abuse: The woman acquiesces to her partner’s demands because he beat her up and intimidated her into it. The final image is the abuser smiling over his win.

After it was roundly condemned on Twitter and across the web, the Cavaliers released a statement the next day that read in part:

While the video was not intended to be offensive, it was a mistake to include content that made light of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a very serious matter and has no place in a parody video that plays in an entertainment venue. We sincerely apologize to those who have been affected by domestic violence for the obvious negative feelings caused by being exposed to this insensitive video.

But in order for this video to get made, someone had to think of the concept. The set had to be created, actors cast, parts learned. Visual had to be filmed, the entire thing had to be edited down, and graphics and voiceover had to be added. To say that it was simply a “mistake” is to downplay and nearly erase the amount of approval that had to happen for that video to get made. It did not “whoops!” into existence.

The people behind that video did not accidentally show abuse in its full form; if anything, they had too good an idea of what domestic violence looks like for it to be a mistake. It’s a near-perfect rendering of the cycle of abuse. That no one flagged this as a problem in a parody video played during an NBA game reflects how members of the public tell the story of abuse more often from the perspective of the abuser than the victims. This means many don’t see the violence present in media at all, and they most certainly don’t stop to consider the portrayal of or impact on victims.

When bad marketing and public relations incidents like this happen, many people ask, “How did all those people who OK-ed it along the way not say or do something to stop this? How did everyone miss this red flag?” We saw the questioning after the Cavs video aired. But there was even more of this commentary only a week earlier when a horrible Bud Light , titled “Up For Whatever,” led the company to put labels on its beer bottles that read, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night. #UpForWhatever. The perfect beer for whatever happens.”

“No Means No” has been the most recognizable phrase associated with anti-sexual assault work for decades now, and so when people are trying to determine if a sexual assault occurred, one of the first and most frequent questions asked is, “Did you say ‘no’”? The implication there is that if you didn’t say “no,” then consent existed; this very problematic framing is why “yes means yes” campaigns are becoming more popular. In many cases, the victim and/or perpetrator being drunk complicates the understanding of boundaries and the presence or absence of consent. So for Bud Light to put on its labels that its beer will “remove ‘no’” from someone’s vocabulary in the midst of this longstanding, well-known cultural context was irresponsible, at the least. The criticism of the label was widespread; even a Fox News contributor referred to the label as “rapey.”

This reactive questioning seems useless in the long run, though, given that victims or people advocating for them apparently have to be the ones to speak up in order to even force the questions. The change needs to happen on the front end before any of these messages make it to the public. Otherwise we will remain in this same cycle.

On the May 3 episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver suggested a reason for how those words ended up on the Bud Light bottle, despite going through five levels of approval. Each of those levels, his joke went, consisted of a white dudebro wearing a polo shirt (some with their collar popped) who looked like he just stepped out of a fraternity house, saying “Yeah boy!” or giving the idea the thumbs-up.

The bit worked so well because that is what most of us imagine the process is actually like: A bunch of men without a concern for anyone but other men, who have an idea of rape culture but just don’t care about participating in it. We are right to imagine this, too, given that only 3 percent of all creative directors are women. We also come by our belief because companies and organizations continually fail on this topic; Bud Light had just taken heat for encouraging sexual assault with its Up For Whatever campaign in March, when it tweeted on St. Patrick’s Day that it was okay to pinch someone who was not “#UpForWhatever.”

This could be an unfair assessment, though. Women do make up 60 percent of the public relations workforce, though men dominate the top-level positions in that field. Compared to other professional sports, the NBA does the best overall job of including women within the organization and on teams; it’s a low bar, but they still jump over it. In the end, the problem, as it is, is systemic, which means no one is immune from participating in the myriad ways we sanitize and excuse violence.

We, as a culture, approach issues of interpersonal, domestic, and sexual violence most often from the perspective of the perpetrator. No one who created that Bud Light label or that Cavs video was thinking about the people against whom violence is done. The Cavaliers noted in their statement that they made light of domestic violence and that in doing so, caused “obvious negative feelings” for people who have been affected by domestic violence. Like the Cavs, Bud Light pulled the label in response to the criticism and issued a statement saying its “message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.” Except, well, it did do just that. And based on what we know about beer companies and their marketing campaigns, it’ll probably do it again.

Here’s the huge breakdown in these marketing and public relations failures: No one cares about the victims. That is why, when cases of violence arise, we are obsessed with determining whether it happened at all—as a society, we err on the side of believing the victim to be lying rather than someone to be an abuser. This is why media outlets write sympathetic stories about abusers, even when their violence is horrific. It is also why there is always inevitably a push to move on, move forward, move past the violence as soon as given the chance to do so.

And we live in a society that does not need even one more reason to remind abusers that we don’t care about their violence and that we don’t see their victims. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2010, “More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” The 2013 National Census of Domestic Violence Services says that in a single day, domestic violence programs in the United States provided services to nearly 67,000 people, and that “local and state hotlines answered 20,267 calls and the National Domestic Violence Hotline answered 550 calls, averaging more than 14 hotline calls every minute.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States—more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.”

In a perfect world where our society took this kind of violence seriously and actively worked to dismantle the cultural structures that prop it up, there would be few victims. That is the ideal. Outside of that pipe dream, here’s a simpler one: It would be nice if there was always someone in the room to remind everyone that a victim of the violence they are portraying will undoubtedly witness their product, and their interpretation should be considered.

That this does not happen is not just a sports problem (though it is that, too, but only in the way that sports are a microcosm reflecting ourselves back at us). This is a problem with a culture that does not care about victims and that tolerates—even sanctions and encourages—abuse. We are a culture who privileges the perspective of abusers. That is most evident in moments like these, when we find ourselves asking, “How did so many people approve this ad, this label, or this video?”

The night the Cavs showed the video in the arena, statistics tell us that the odds were high that a woman was sitting next to her abuser, their shoulders or knees probably touching. We can imagine her turning her eyes to the Humongotron upon hearing the first bars of “I’ve Had The Time of My Life.” Then she would have seen a scene unfold onscreen that probably would have caused her back to stiffen, shifting away from her partner as she recognized too well the dynamic she was seeing. And then she would have had to watch and listen to the people around her laugh and perhaps even cheer the satisfied smirk of the man at the end of the video as he said, “Go Cavs.”

Then she might have looked over at her partner, her abuser, and seen him, a dedicated Cavaliers fan, enjoying that video. He, too would have recognized the dynamic—but for him, the message he received would have been “Yeah boy!,” with a double thumbs-up from the Cavs. Neither one would have thought they were looking at a “mistake.”