A new study has found that many rape victims in the United States are paying medical bills for the aftermath of their assaults, despite the fact that the federal government has laws in place to prevent exactly that from happening. Federal law ensures that victims aren’t charged for rape kits, regardless of whether they report the attack to police. However, the real financial confusion starts when medical treatment is required beyond that initial exam.
The government-funded study was done by the Urban Institute in partnership with George Mason University and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Researchers took a look at sexual assault care providers and the organizations that pay for them, carrying out case studies in six states. Their research found that in most states, rape victims do receive free rape kits, but in many cases, healthcare administrators often accidentally billed victims.
As NPR explains, rape kits are paid for by victim compensation funds, which are mostly financed by fines paid by convicted federal offenders. Currently, victims can be required to pay for the treatment upfront and request for reimbursement later. However, Congress’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which takes effect in March 2015, will end that and ensure that exams are completely free.
Awesome news? Yes. But it doesn’t eliminate the study’s discovery that lots of complicated state rules leave victims saddled with medical bills for the treatment of conditions, such as sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy, caused by the sexual assault. According to federal law, a free rape kit includes an exam for physical trauma, evidence collection, and a patient interview. Shockingly, a victim isn’t entitled to free testing for STIs and pregnancy that could have resulted from the assault. (Seriously?) The study found that many states do provide this for free, but it’s not mandated. According to the research, charges for treatment of other effects (like STIs, pregnancy, or any injuries from the attack) vary by state, but are less likely to be waived for victims.
Another grim discovery by researchers is that many states have a cap on how much they’ll pay for these kinds of services. If a rape victim’s treatment exceeds that, they may be on her own in paying the extra costs. Many hospitals will absorb the extra fees, but if a victim is unlucky, they could be paying these bills all on their own. A victim may be able to use her health insurance to pay for any fees the government won’t take care of, but lots of people are hesitant to submit rape-related insurance claims that their parents, family members or partner may see on insurance forms. Despite risks like this, states are allowed to require that victims go through their insurance to get their treatment handled, as long as they don’t have copayments or deductibles.
Essentially, what it comes down to is that even though a small amount of a victim’s treatment is legally set to be paid for, the rest is dependent on whether they’re lucky enough to be in a state that covers extra costs or have a compassionate and helpful medical provider. It’s a pretty major bummer that something so significant has so much to do with odds rather than legal rights.
Rape already has so many long-lasting negative effects, and to be bogged down with steep medical bills on top of it (according to NPR, a one-month course of treatment to prevent HIV infection after an attack can be as much as $1,000) just puts more undue responsibility on a victim. To me, it looks like one more step toward an increasingly victim-blaming culture. Luckily, it seems like policy is headed in the right direction to lighten these burdens; let’s hope research continues to draw attention to our current reality.