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Insurers offer to stop charging women more

As Congress seeks major changes to the healthcare system, the insurance industry offered a new concession: Stop charging women higher premiums.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The health insurance industry offered Tuesday to stop charging women higher premiums, a surcharge that hits many self-employed working women trying to buy their own coverage. 

It was the latest concession from insurers as Congress works to overhaul the nation’s $2.5 trillion healthcare system to expand coverage and slow rising costs.

Insurers are trying to head off creation of a government health plan that would compete with them in every state — something many Democrats favor but which the companies say would drive them out of business.

Instead health insurers are offering to submit to close government regulation, accepting a series of restrictions they contend would add up to a fairer marketplace and cut into the ranks of the 50 million uninsured.

”We are comfortable with that,” Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, told the Senate Finance Committee at a session on how to cover the uninsured. She was part of a large panel of witnesses including representatives from business, labor unions, insurers, consumer groups and public policy centers.

Ignagni, who heads the private insurers’ trade group, told senators that the industry is ready to stop charging women more than men. Healthcare costs for women tend to be higher during childbearing years.

The higher premiums mainly affect women who are trying to buy coverage on their own. Most Americans are covered through employer plans, which are required to offer a broad range of benefits and prohibited from charging more to those in poor health.

That’s not the case in the individual market. Insurance companies use a variety of tactics that discriminate against women, said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. These include writing policies that don’t cover maternity care and charging women more than men for identical coverage.

Ignagni readily conceded. ”We don’t believe gender should be a subject of rating,” she said.

Insurers have already offered to stop denying coverage to sick people and to end the practice of charging higher premiums to those with a history of health problems. In exchange, the industry wants Congress to require all Americans to carry health insurance, either through an employer plan, on their own, or a current government program like Medicaid.

What insurers want to avoid is a new government plan that would be open to middle-class workers and their families. President Barack Obama says such a plan would help keep private industry honest.

”I do not accept the premise that to keep the [private] plans honest you need a public program,” said Ignagni.