Women tell Congress about health insurance disparities

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 15, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- When Amanda Buchanan and her schoolteacher husband talked about having a second baby, it felt as though there were three people at the table, she told a Senate committee Thursday.

"Myself, my husband and our insurance policy," Buchanan said.

Ultimately, the 32-year-old from Weiser, Idaho, had another child, but she dropped her expensive individual insurance policy so that she and her husband could use the money instead to pay off the bills from the baby's delivery. Under her individual policy, pregnancy had a separate $5,000 deductible and required that she pay 20 percent of all remaining expenses.

Buchanan and several other women on Thursday shared examples of disparities in coverage with a subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- one of the committees that wrote a version of a health care overhaul bill that will be considered by the full Senate. In an effort to get American women on board with the health care overhaul, Democratic women in the Senate have been highlighting their own health care stories and those of their constituents.

At Thursday's hearing, many women had examples of individual policies that require women to pay more than men in some states, including Idaho, where insurers who issue individual policies can use age, sex, geography and whether a client smokes as factors in determining premiums. Some women attended the hearing wearing T-shirts that said, "I am not a pre-existing condition."

Women already face a number of hurdles when it comes to health care, testified James Guest, the president and chief executive of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. They make less money than men, making health care expenses a disproportionate amount of their income. Plus, they're more likely work part time or for small businesses, where insurance options might be limited.

"For women, the health insurance crisis is very real, very personal and very scary," Guest said.

The committee also heard from women such as Peggy Robertson of Colorado, who read a letter from her insurance company. Robertson testified that because she'd already given birth via cesarean, when she tried to get an individual policy in Colorado, her insurance company considered it a pre-existing condition and wouldn't insure her unless she could prove she'd been sterilized.

That "put me on the edge of my chair," said the chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., calling it "offensive and morally repugnant."

"No one in the United States of America, in order to get health insurance, should ever be coerced into getting sterilized," Mikulski said.

American's health insurers have pledged to end gender discrimination, said Karen Ignagni, the president and chief executive of America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry group. The organization drew fire this week for releasing a report that warned premiums would go up for many people if Congress passes the health care bill that came out of the Senate Finance Committee this week.

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