By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
According to a recent article in the New York Times, women buying individual health insurance policies are often paying significantly more than men their same age. The Times reviewed data from multiple insurance providers and online brokers and found that women are often paying well over 30 percent (sometimes closer to 50 percent) more in premiums than their male counterparts. For many consumers who have recently lost their job and health benefits, or for those making a switch from employer-sponsored insurance to the individual market for some other reason, it’s important to be aware of these practices.
This doesn’t sit right with me. The National Consumers League, a longtime proponent of health care for all, has long advocated for universal health coverage. In fact, before coming to NCL and serving as our president in 1940, Josephine Roche penned the first national health care bill while working for FDR’s administration. As a champion of economic and social justice for workers and consumers, NCL opposes such discrimination.
One of the main explanations for charging women more than men is that they are using more health services. Yes, women have babies, and giving birth is expensive. But you can’t punish women for that! Indeed, it’s in society's best interest to see that babies are born healthy and with good prenatal care and that their mothers receive good care as well. The stress of not doing so is bad for the mom and for the baby. Moreover, aside from maternity care, women make better use of preventive health care services, which is exactly what health care experts tell us to do: get the check-ups, the mammograms, and the pap smears.
Studies have shown that investing in prevention can help delay - and even prevent - the onset of many chronic conditions, which account for a significant majority of the health care spending in this country. This is particularly important given that middle-aged women are disproportionately affected by certain chronic conditions such as asthma, obesity, arthritis, and certain cancers.
Many policy makers are speaking out. In both houses of Congress, leaders are asking why and how insurance companies can claim they are meeting the needs of women when the health care coverage is tough to attain, inefficient or incomplete, and more expensive. The Times article also reports that states such as Maine, Montana, and New York are “prohibiting sex-based rates in the individual insurance market.” Earlier this summer, the LA Times questioned insurers' process for determining risks. We consumers are alarmed to learn that we may be charged more for (or even denied) coverage based on gender, race, or ethnicity.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that there are close to 17 million women (roughly 18 percent of women) who remain uninsured in this country, many of whom cannot obtain insurance because they work part-time or with companies that do not offer insurance. Of the 77 million or so women fortunate enough to have coverage, 6 percent purchase their own coverage, and that is where women end up paying more than men and where their coverage often falls short, (a number likely to rise in these bad economic times), often excluding mental health, family planning, and maternity care services.
We will work with policymakers to fix the unfair treatment women experience in the health insurance marketplace and to see that any additional expense related to maternity and childbirth are costs shared by all of us.