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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

The insurance gap

THE justification for charging women two or three times more than men for individual health-insurance policies demands a closer look, preferably by Congress.

From where we sit, the widespread industry practice of charging female insurance clients hundreds of dollars a year more than men of the same age looks an awful lot like gender discrimination.

Such gender differentiation is prohibited by civil rights laws in job-based group insurance coverage. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers can't charge higher premiums to women than to men for the same benefits, even if women as a class are more expensive to insure. Insurers in the individual market point out that women ages 19 to 55 tend to cost more to insure than men because they typically use more medical services, especially in the childbearing years.

Recent data from insurance firms and online brokers illustrate new evidence of the size and prevalence of these premium disparities, with women still paying more for insurance that doesn't even cover maternity care. The differences charged by major insurers such as Humana, UnitedHealth, Aetna and Anthem, are astonishing.

Example: A 30-year-old Columbus woman pays 49 percent more than a man of the same age for Anthem's Blue Access Economy plan. At 40, the gap narrows somewhat, with Anthem charging women 38 percent more than men for that policy.

Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, argues that 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," she said.

At a time when more people are shopping for individual health insurance policies because they've lost jobs that provided coverage, women buying health policies appear to be paying an unfair penalty. And the justification for burdening them with higher monthly premiums because they go to the doctor more often sounds too much like an excuse to discriminate.

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