June 24, 2008

Women Charged Higher Health Insurance Rates

Women insured by Blue Shield of California recently received a double whammy: Not only is the cost for individual health insurance cost going up, but now under a new two-tier system women will pay more than men for the same coverage. The change goes into effect July 1.

“It’s not about pregnancy,” writes L.A. Times columnist David Lazarus. “No, this is purely a matter of Blue Shield deciding that women, as a general rule, are more expensive to insure than men.”

Perhaps this is partly because women are more likely to seek preventive care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But this should make them better insurance risks. After all, they’re proactively working to stay healthy. And isn’t that exactly what insurers encourage people to do?

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Alice Wolfson of United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. “The insurers aren’t assessing risk. They’re assessing how much healthcare is used, even when it’s preventive treatment.”

A spokesman for the California Department of Insurance said there were no regulations preventing gender-based pricing for individual policies.

Vehicle insurers also use gender in determining rates. In their case, though, men often pay more for coverage because they’re viewed as the greater risk. Supposedly guys drive more recklessly and get into more accidents.

Yet men are nevertheless viewed as a lesser medical liability than women, who live longer on average because they tend to eat right, exercise more frequently and take better care of themselves.

Lazarus breaks down the difference in cost for Blue Shield’s Balance Plan 1700 — a high-deductible individual policy. Women and men pay the same at age 18 — $98 per month — but by age 20, women pay $119 while men pay $110. At age 45, women are paying $25 more — $271 to $246. The gap persists until age 60. At that point, women pay $548 a month while men’s premiums increase to $589.

Aetna Inc. and Anthem Blue Cross also charge women higher rates. A spokeswoman for Anthem Blue Cross told the L.A. Times that gender was added last year to the mix of factors that can affect an individual’s rates. Other factors include current health status, medical history, age, residence and occupation.

Lazarus also raises questions about how far insurers might go in the future to determine risks and related costs:

If women are more expensive than men to insure, and middle-aged women are significantly more expensive than middle-aged men, what about, say, older women with red hair? After all, they have fairer skin and thus are more susceptible to skin cancer.

How about if, statistically speaking, blacks are more expensive to insure than whites? Or Christians more expensive to cover than kosher-observing Jews?

David Gross, who covers California politics at the California Progress Report, writes that that while risk-analysis may be a standard insurance practice, “I think the public realizes that this is unacceptable social policy to have such discrimination, against women or any other group.”

Plus: This isn’t the first discrepancy in health care coverage we’ve noted this month. See Rachel’s post on women who have had a cesarean section being denied or having to pay more for individual insurance.


4 Responses to “Women Charged Higher Health Insurance Rates”

  1. vesta44 Says:

    This doesn’t surprise me at all, especially after reading Annie’s post on Boombatti about the woman in Oregon whose lung cancer had been in remission for 2 years. Her cancer came back, her oncologist prescribed chemotherapy, and her state health coverage refused to pay for it, but would pay for her assisted suicide. WTF!? What kind of messed up world is it when an insurance company refuses to pay for medical care, but will pay for killing you? Die now, or die later because we refuse to treat you. If you want to avoid the agony of dying from cancer without treatment, kill yourself, that we’ll pay for.
    I’ll admit it, I’m a vindictive witch. When I read that, all I could think was that I hope the insurance person who made that decision has the same thing happen to them. Then maybe they’ll learn some compassion.

  2. Margaret Says:

    Cynical me: I think insurance companies have this in mind: men cost less because they die younger and when they get sick/terminally ill they have family women around to do a lot of nursing for free. Because a woman lives a longer and healthier life she’ll be paying higher premiums for longer making really good profits for the insurance company – and when it’s her turn to get sick/ terminally ill, she has no man to look after her and ends up requiring more expensive care.

    I see from the post above that insurance companies haven’t really provided actual reasons for the different premiums though…

  3. Rachel Says:

    This reminds me of a funny story – I was working somewhere with two men (and several more women) on staff, and the big boss (a man) was looking at changing our insurance coverage to cut costs. The changes included a decrease in prescription drug coverage, among other things. I mentioned to him in a staff meeting about the possible changes that pricing all of us young, fertile women out of our birth control might not exactly turn out to be a cost-saving measure. ;)

  4. Margie Says:

    A friend of mine did not have insurance through her work, so she was buying her own policy. She had the option to opt in or out on the pregnancy coverage. For me if I were buying my own insurance and could save money and opt out of something that I was not using like pregnancy coverage, I would want that option.

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