By Debi Brazzale, COLORADO NEWS AGENCY
A panel of four women and three men talked gender Thursday at the Capitol as they considered a measure that would tell health insurance companies that they can no longer charge women higher rates than men for their premiums.
The proposal passed, but only after a lively discussion on whether men or women ultimately get the short end of the stick from the insurance industry.
“The disparity in the cost of health insurance between men and women is unacceptable, and correcting this inequity should be one of our top priorities,” said Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, who introduced House Bill 1008 in the Senate alongside Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.
Flying in from Washington D.C. to testify for the bill before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Lisa Codispoti from the National Women’s Law Center said the bill is needed because of the tenuous status of national health reform, a pending version of which also would ban gender-based rating for health coverage.
“Women and men of Colorado should not have to wait on Congress to remedy this harmful and discriminatory practice,” said Codispoti.
Skeptics of the legislation, however, have noted that women in key age groups simply are more expensive to insure given their health-care needs, and disparities in rates reflect that reality.
Under questioning by the committee’s Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, Codispoti acknowledged that there is indeed a statistical difference between men’s and women’s health-care needs. However, she said the statistics are not fair to the individual.
“It is true that women throughout their lifetime do use more health care services than men, but what we find troubling about gender rating is that it makes an assumption that because you belong to a particular group that you will use more health care services,” Codispoti said. She also said rates charged to women varied greatly from state to state and policy to policy.
Sen. David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said that dynamic also reflects market realities.
“We should allow the free market to find the price based on it’s own criteria … this is not the Soviet Union here,” said Schultheis.
Schultheis contended the bill would discriminate in reverse.
“What you’re doing is discriminating against men, and that’s not fair. Why should men have to pay a higher premium when on balance they require less health care … over their lifetime?” asked Schultheis.
Carroll contered that in a truly merit-based system, being gender-blind is more fair because it leaves it up to claims history and health status and that to add anything beyond that is a gender surcharge.
“Under this bill anyone that uses more will pay more and anyone that uses less will pay less,” said Carroll.
Erin Benett, the Colorado organizer of 9 to 5, the National Organization of Working Women, said the status quo is flat unfair.
“No one should be able to charge a person more for a product simply because of gender. Being a woman is not a pre-existing condition,” said Bennett.
Mitchell pressed Benett on her premise that gender should not be a factor in determining the price of an insurance product.
“Should auto insurance companies be allowed to charge more for boys than girls?” asked Mitchell, in reference to the much higher rates that are applied to the policies of teen-age male drivers than to teen-age female drivers.
Mitchell nevertheless was the lone Republican joining the Democrats on the committee in voting for the bill, saying that he will now consider introducing a bill that prohibits gender discrimination for auto insurance and that he anticipates their support. The other two men on the committee, both Republicans, voted against the bill.