Domestic-Abuse Victims Want Help From Insurance Industry

Illinois considers law to protect victims of domestic violence, but is it enough?

When Kittis Bolduc of suburban Seattle was denied her homeowner's insurance claim in 1997, after her husband burned down their house during divorce proceedings, she wasn't alone. At least a dozen other women from Montana to Tennessee have publicly told similar stories of being denied coverage because of the abuse they experienced at the hands of their spouses.

These stories prompted states to pass legislation protecting victims of domestic violence from being discriminated against by insurance companies. At least 30 states have passed laws recently, after hearing of women being denied insurance or being charged higher rates because their husbands abused them.

But a bill recently passed by the Illinois Legislature is different. It swept through the House and Senate last month without the support of a single advocacy group for battered woman. And the bill's primary sponsor did not cite one example of an abuse victim who had ever encountered such discrimination in the state.

Industry takes lead

While anti-domestic violence groups elsewhere in the country are savoring legislation that protects victims, it is the insurance industry that is celebrating here. The measure offers a glimpse of how the property and casualty insurance industry is launching a new offensive in the battle over insuring battery victims.

The Illinois bill would prohibit property and casualty insurers from charging higher rates to battery victims and from using the fact that they've been abused "as the sole basis" for denying claims. Under the plan, carriers could not refuse to pay battery victims for property damage that was intentionally inflicted by a coinsured abuser. The abuse victim would have to prove that the damage was part of "a pattern" of domestic violence. Critics of the proposed legislation say the problem is that the offender would have to be prosecuted - but many battered wives are hesitant to file charges against their husbands.

Terry Fromson, managing attorney of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, calls the bill "one of the worst" she has ever seen for protecting abuse victims. She says the legislation wouldn't protect women whose spouses inflict abuse through property damage or who stalk them - just if they physically hurt them.

"There's too many hurdles to get over, and too many escape valves for the industry," she says, arguing that the bill is too narrow.

But state Rep. Terry Parke (R), the bill's primary sponsor, disagrees. So do the many Illinois-based insurance companies including State Farm, Allstate, and CNA that backed the legislation. Mr. Parke contends that the law is needed not because there is a widespread problem in Illinois, but because nothing exists on the state's books for how insurance companies should "handle the tragedy of spousal abuse."

Uncommon problem?

The insurance industry also maintains that there is not a widespread problem of abuse victims being denied coverage by insurers. "We have seen a list of 16 examples from across the country" over the years, says Don Cleasby of the National Association of Independent Insurers.

Advocates for domestic violence victims say it is difficult to determine just how many have been denied coverage or charged higher premiums based on the fact that they've been abused. Insurers are not required to tell applicants why their applications or claims were rejected, so battery victims may not know that they were discriminated against, says Ms. Fromson.

"We think it happens more than meets the eye," says Deborah Senn, the Washington State Insurance Commissioner

"What's so ironic about it is that you tell victims to report the violence [to authorities] and to tell the doctor," Ms. Senn says. "But when it appears in her records and she tries to get her life back together, she's victimized again."

Gov. Jim Edgar (R) has not said whether he will sign the bill.

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