Sep 15, 2022 - Health

Uninsured sexual assault survivors billed thousands for care, study shows

 Illustration of a person with their head in their hands, sitting against a larger-than-life stethoscope.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Sexual violence survivors who are uninsured are often saddled with medical bills that can soar well upwards of $3,000 for the care they receive, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Why it matters: A majority of people who are sexually assaulted do not come forward about their assaults due to trauma, stigma and fear. But the possibility of getting charged with such high health care costs can be even more "disincentivizing," said Samuel Dickman, a physician at Planned Parenthood of Montana and study co-author.

Details: The study found that in 2019, more than 112,000 survivors of sexual assault sought emergency care. Over 17,000 were uninsured and faced medical charges averaging $3,673.

  • Victims who were pregnant had the highest charges at $4,553 in 2019.
  • These costs are "certainly higher" now, said Steffie Woolhandler, a physician and study c0-author. "Health care costs have increased year upon year in the United States."

State of play: The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) guarantees full coverage of sexual assault evidence-collection kits, commonly known as "rape kits," to sexual violence survivors.

  • However, survivors still face charges for other medical care that could be necessary following a sexual assault, such as treatment for injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and emergency contraceptives.
  • The study authors call for the broadening of VAWA, as well as for universal health care coverage, "to ensure that costs are not a barrier to essential medical care and forensic evaluation in cases of sexual assault."

Between the lines: While under federal law hospitals are prohibited from billing survivors for rape kits, some are still charged for such services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What they're saying: "There's a lot of reasons people don't report rape, but the health care center system sending bills to victims of sexual assault really worsens the trauma, worsens the stigma and worsens the economic harm of a sexual assault," Woolhandler said.

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