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Insure Battered Women Fairly

THE tide of public disapproval is coming in on insurance companies that discriminate against women whose husbands or boyfriends beat them.

Recent news reports have exposed that for some companies it is standard practice to deny these women insurance or to inflate their premiums for health or life insurance on the assumption that they are "bad risks" or "too costly." Insurance agents have likened battered women to "smokers who won't quit" or "race car drivers," as if they intentionally risk their lives and so do not deserve help.

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To these women, and to others who have worked for decades to help people understand that "leaving" isn't so simple, this is like another slap in the face.

Some executives fear that life insurance may provide incentive for murder. One insurance spokeswoman acknowledges that although this is a sensitive issue, abuse is generally motivated by desire for control, not money.

Some women have been murdered by their abusers after taking steps to break away from that control. But the beneficiaries left behind in such cases should have the same financial protection that others have.

Some insurance companies have even refused to pay claims on women's homeowner's policies after their husbands, seeking to punish them for fleeing, burned down their houses.

Women's willingness to take complaints to the courts, to insurance commissioners, and to lawmakers has made waves. Some companies have voluntarily started building on higher ground, realizing that by better understanding the complexity of domestic violence they can better serve not only the people who may most need their help, but themselves as well.

Federal and state legislators working to make such discrimination illegal are right, however, not to make women dependent on individual companies' change of heart.

US Rep. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon has decried the "Catch-22": "If [women] seek help for abuse, they may end up losing, or being denied, insurance." If they don't get help early, they are more likely to be seen in emergency rooms, driving up everyone's health-care costs.

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Mr. Wyden's bill, and a similar one proposed in the Senate by Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, would fine companies $10,000 a day for discriminating against battered women.

But Mark Montigny, chairman of the Joint Committee on Insurance in the Massachusetts legislature, isn't holding his breath for Congress to act.

Mr. Montigny fears a return to when domestic violence was seen as a "private matter" rather than a crime. However, companies in Massachusetts that discriminate will not have the law on their side for long, it appears. His measure banning insurance discrimination has been approved in the legislature and is expected to be signed into law. Montigny credits the media spotlight for informing the public, thus forestalling any potential resistance from the insurance industry.

The American Council of Life Insurance, whose 600 member companies issue 91 percent of US insurance policies, has said that it will not oppose these efforts, as long as companies are allowed to base policies on medical information. Some fear this will be used as a loophole, but ACLI insists it is the only way to keep rates down. Although the council sees a need to correct discriminatory underwriting practices, a spokeswoman also notes that in 1993, 96 percent of all applicants were granted insurance.

State Farm, taken to task a year ago for having refused health and life insurance to a woman because of her history of abuse, deserves credit for going a step beyond damage control. After being challenged, not only did State Farm give her insurance and quickly change its underwriting policy, but it launched a study of domestic violence.

The company found it often already pays for injuries caused by abuse but reported as accidents. So last month it formed the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, which will channel private funds into education and prevention efforts.

This gives corporate America the opportunity to back up statements of compassion for battered women, and to foster increased awareness of the benefits of such compassion within companies that haven't yet voiced it.

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