For people who are not lucky enough to have their health insurance through their employer or a government program, looking for an acceptable and affordable individual policy can be a fool's errand. Coverage in the individual market usually means accepting policies that offer less protection with higher deductibles, and any history of a health disorder can make one all but uninsurable. Now it turns out one group is particularly disadvantaged in this marketplace: women. A recent study has found they pay a dear price for their gender, with premiums significantly higher than men's for the same coverage.
A comprehensive investigation by the National Women's Law Center found that women faced higher premiums even when they were the same age and health status as their male counterparts, and even when maternity coverage was excluded. Monthly premiums ranged between 4 percent and 48 percent higher for a 40-year-old woman than for a man that age with exactly the same coverage. Even within states, premiums varied wildly. One of the starkest examples was in Missouri, where one insurer charged a 40-year-old woman 140 percent more than a man, while another insurer charged only 15 percent more.
Insurance actuaries explain this persistent gender gap in health insurance pricing by claiming that women use the health care system more. Eric Lingswiler, the interim director of Life and Health Product Review at the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, says bluntly that "women's health is more expensive than men's." He says if the state made it illegal to discriminate against women in health insurance pricing — as some other states do — there would be an artificial transfer of costs to men.
But the statistics seem to tell a different story. If the premium variations between men and women were truly based solely on differences in the use of health care, you would expect price uniformity. Because there isn't, the variations suggest bias has seeped into the system.
Florida prohibits health insurers from taking race into account in setting rates, even if an insurer can show that some racial groups use more health care services and a differential would be justified by actuarial standards. There is a valid public policy reason to bar racial discrimination in pricing health insurance. The same is true of gender.
Federal and state antidiscrimination laws typically protect women in group plans who are covered at work from being charged more for their coverage. That means gender-based premium variations only impact women who try to buy insurance in the individual market — a group that tends to include women who work at low-paying jobs.
As more Floridians lose jobs in this tough economy, there will be a greater need for regulation of the private insurance market. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to make sweeping changes to the health insurance system, but until that happens Florida lawmakers can at least protect women from being treated unfairly. The affordability of health insurance should not be a matter of one's gender, no matter what the bean counters say.