WASHINGTON - Striking new evidence has emerged of a widespread gap in the cost of insurance, as women pay much more than men of the same age for individual health insurance policies providing identical coverage, according to new data from insurance companies and online brokers.
Some insurance executives expressed surprise at the size and prevalence of the disparities, which can make a woman's insurance cost hundreds of dollars a year more than a man's. Women's advocacy groups have raised concerns about the differences, and members of Congress have begun to question the justification for them.
The findings come amid anxiety about the declining economy. More and more people are shopping for individual health insurance policies because they have lost jobs that provided coverage. Politicians of both parties have offered proposals that would expand the role of the individual market, giving people tax credits or other assistance to buy coverage on their own.
"Women often fare worse than men in the individual insurance market," said Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and chairman of the Finance Committee.
Insurers say they have a sound reason for the premium variance: Women ages 19 to 55 tend to cost more than men because they typically use more health care, especially in the childbearing years.
But women still pay more than men for insurance that does not cover maternity care. In the individual market, maternity coverage may be offered as an optional benefit, or rider, for a hefty additional premium.
Crystal D. Kilpatrick, a healthy 33-year-old real estate agent in Austin, Texas, said: "I've delayed having a baby because my insurance policy does not cover maternity care. If I have a baby, I'll have to pay at least $8,000 out of pocket."
In general, insurers say, they charge women more than men of the same age because claims experience shows that women use more health care services. They are more likely to visit doctors, to get regular checkups, to take prescription medications and to have certain chronic illnesses.
Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group that has examined hundreds of individual policies, said: "The wide variation in premiums could not possibly be justified by actuarial principles. We should not tolerate women having to pay more for health insurance, just as we do not tolerate the practice of using race as a factor in setting rates."
Without substantial changes in the individual market, Greenberger said, tax credits for the purchase of insurance will be worth less to women because they face higher premiums.
The disparities are evident in premiums charged by major insurers like Humana, UnitedHealth, Aetna and Anthem, a unit of WellPoint; in prices quoted by eHealth, an online source of health insurance; and in rate tables published by state high-risk pools, which offer coverage to people who cannot obtain private insurance.