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Insurers back law barring domestic abuse histories


Maryland's insurers and advocates for victims of domestic violence told state regulators yesterday that they would support a state law banning insurers from using an applicant's history as a victim of domestic abuse as a factor in setting premiums or denying coverage.

The groups said they'd support the change even though most major insurers say they already eliminate such information from their underwriting files.

Although a few members of the Health Insurance Association of America have said they do use the information when making coverage decisions, "I really don't think it is a severe problem," said Lynne E. Fritter, an attorney for the trade association.

Nevertheless, Ms. Fritter said her group would support a law that "leveled the playing field" by making all insurers abide by the same rules.

The state has little documentation that victims of domestic abuse are denied coverage or charged higher rates by insurers. Advocates for battered women said yesterday that a survey of Maryland's shelters turned up no such cases, and the Maryland Insurance Administration reports no complaints.

But Jeanne MacLeod, spokeswoman for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said that battered women may not report discrimination because they don't know why they are having difficulty obtaining insurance.

"We would like to see the reason for denial made clearly to the victim. If we don't have information, we can't discover how widespread the problem is," she said. "This information has been kept confidential."

She said she'd like to see a law protecting battered women from insurance discrimination so women wouldn't be penalized for reporting abuse to doctors.

Dwight K. Bartlett, the Maryland insurance commissioner, said he called yesterday's hearing to decide "what if any steps should be taken" about insurance companies that discriminate against abuse victims.

He said he is especially concerned that companies that don't consider domestic violence as a factor will end up paying an unfair price because they'll insure people more likely to file claims.

While his own agency hasn't received complaints from domestic abuse victims, Mr. Bartlett said he wanted to investigate insurers' policies toward victims because of reports from women in other states.

State Farm Insurance Co., a company involved in a case in Pennsylvania, said that it has already changed its policy to protect victims, and would support a law forcing all insurers to follow suit.

Peggy Echols, an attorney for State Farm, said the debate over insurers' treatment of abuse victims started when a State Farm underwriter in Pennsylvania denied a woman life and health insurance coverage after learning she had been abused.

The employee wasn't following a company rule, since State Farm didn't have a written policy about domestic abuse.

But she said State Farm now insists its employees don't ask applicants about domestic violence, and if they do happen to find out about abuse, "don't use it for any reason," she said.

She said her company would support a law banning all insurers in Maryland from using information about domestic abuse, but ++ asked that the law be paired with legislation that would provide immunity for insurers that cover someone who is then killed by an abuser.

Relatives of murder victims have sued insurers saying they should not have issued life insurance policies to people they knew were battered spouses because they then gave the

abuser more of an incentive, she said.

Executives from other large Maryland insurers told the regulators they don't use the information in any way and would support a law change to make sure other companies don't.

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