Domestic violence as a “preexisting condition”

by Jillian Hewitt

This week the Service Employees International Union posted a blog revealing that in 8 states—and the District of Columbia—being a victim of domestic abuse is considered a preexisting condition by many insurance companies. This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.

Everyone knows that in this country people with cancer, diabetes, and all number of other diseases are denied healthcare. Everyone with cancer is susceptible, not just those who may have “participated” in their getting cancer, i.e. smokers. Everyone with diabetes is susceptible, not just those who may have “participated” in their developing diabetes by way of an unhealthy lifestyle. Point being, those who are victims of cancer, diabetes, and disease are made victims once again. In this way, denying coverage to people with this type of “preexisting condition” is extremely similar to denying coverage based on one’s status as a victim of domestic violence.

But here’s where the two classifications are different; here’s where it becomes even more disgusting, even more dehumanizing than denying healthcare to those with preexisting medical conditions: by denying coverage to victims of domestic abuse, insurance companies blame the victim when someone else is clearly to blame. It is dehumanizing in the most absolute, clear way—they are treated by insurance companies as investments. Some have more worth than others, some are bigger risks than others; it doesn’t matter why or how they came to be that way. As Ryan Grim wrote in a related Huffington Post article, it is the “cold logic” of the insurance industry. In this case, that logic is detrimental almost exclusively to women, who make up more than 90% of victims of domestic abuse.

I should note that there has been an attempt to end this ridiculous discrimination—Grim notes that in 2006 Senator Pat Murray (D-Wash.) introduced an amendment that would prohibit it; the amendment failed after a 10-10 vote. And in case you were wondering which insurance companies actually take part in this act of punishing the victim, Grim reports that “In 1995, the Boston Globe found that Nationwide, Allstate, State Farm, Aetna, Metropolitan Life, The Equitable Companies, First Colony Life, The Prudential and the Principal Financial Group had all either canceled or denied coverage to women who’d been beaten.” Finally, SEIU is urging people to speak out against the practice by petitioning to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). You can do that here.

To be transparent, I’ve been looking for a good starting point to discuss healthcare in this forum. With the discovery (or rediscovery, rather) of this explicitly sexist, dehumanizing practice, should come the realization that we are in desperate need of change with regard to healthcare policy. The practice of treating humans’ health as investments with which to make a profit will continue to cause the abused to be neglected, the sick to be abandoned, and the insurance companies to make profits that go beyond any standard of reasonability.

20 comments for “Domestic violence as a “preexisting condition”

  1. September 15, 2009 at 3:24 pm


  2. September 15, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    It’s worth noting that that all ten votes AGAINST Senator Murray’s ammendment were Republicans.

    “It is dehumanizing in the most absolute, clear way—they are treated by insurance companies as investments.”

    I’ve lost my ability to be outraged over this. They all do it.

    Make no mistake, it IS outrageous, but my health insurance company has very deliberately and methodically tried to offer my children substandard care because it was cheaper, even when the cheaper care would have seriously injured or killed one or both of them.

    When you deal with that on a day to day basis, it’s hard to build up a good head of steam about it after a couple of years. If I weren’t afraid of losing the insurance coverage that I have (which is shitty, but better than nothing), I would like nothing better than to sit my daughter on the desk of the company’s CEO and have them explain to me exactly how much they think her life is worth.

    I know her life has a price tag, I just want them to look her in the eye when they tell me what it is.

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  4. September 15, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    I was denied disability insurance for having a bad break-up. They checked my medical records and saw that I was temporarily put on anti-depressants after I had a hard time coping with the end of my relationship. I just wanted something to take the edge off, and I figured talking to my doctor was better than not. Apparently I’ll be paying for that “mistake” for the rest of my life.

  5. peanutbutter
    September 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Something that is interesting — and I am not condoning this in any way shape or form, just hear me out — is that there IS a clear connection: once a domestic partner hits someone, that someone will almost always require more health care down the road (because that abuse will not stop and will eventually injure to the point of medical intervention. So that’s “why” they call it “preexisting.” They’re trying to save themselves that cost down the road thru recission rather than through promoting efforts to eliminate DV.

    OK, so let’s imagine for a moment that we put together and implement a national health insurance reform with some actual teeth. I can just see the insurers looking at the above data, and then putting their lobbying efforts into promoting programs that stop/reduce/address DV… for a change.

    Ditto going after the farm industry (the link between HFCS and diabetes, for example: reduce the current incidence of type 2 diabetes, and you save about $400K for every diabetic…

    Can you just see the current lobbying+money tactics turned around and being used that way? o.O One can only hope.

    In the meantime, I’d like to see if we couldn’t get ActBlue or other type of fundraising for any challenges against any of those 10 republicans voting against that bill *grumble*

  6. Bitter Scribe
    September 15, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Hell, why not go all the way and declare marriage itself a “pre-existing condition”? Can’t be too careful when shareholders’ money is at stake, you know.

  7. bethrjacobs
    September 15, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    wait till they get the bill for the rape kit…

  8. September 15, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    I totally agree with your points of view. We need changes in our healthcare system and I hope that whose ever in charge of making it possible please do it as soon as possible. ( )

  9. September 16, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    all this domestic violence as a “preexisting condition” nonsense sounds outrageous…How could they stoop THIS low?…till you realize that, well, the health insurance industry and domestic violence are but branches on the same tree…

  10. September 18, 2009 at 10:56 am

    “But here’s where the two classifications are different; here’s where it becomes even more disgusting, even more dehumanizing than denying healthcare to those with preexisting medical conditions: by denying coverage to victims of domestic abuse, insurance companies blame the victim when someone else is clearly to blame.”



    I don’t mean to be such a jerk on someone else’s writing in a new area but REALLY?????????

  11. September 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    amandaw, i agree…as though anyone is “to blame” for ANY preexisting condition.

  12. Jillian
    September 18, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    To clarify, I wasn’t presuming that anyone is to blame for their preexisting condition. I was pointing out that in the case of domestic violence, there IS someone to blame: the person who committed the acts of violence. In the original version of this piece the phrase “when someone else is clearly to blame” was italicized, which might have made this point more clear, but that was lost in this version. The distinction is not that those with medical conditions are to blame and those in abusive relationships are not; the distinction is that there is no physical, living, breathing person to blame a medical condition on while there IS one to blame domestic violence on.

  13. September 18, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    so, jillian, are you suggesting that the insurance companies should penalize the abuser instead? that having committed an act of domestic abuse should disqualify someone from receiving health coverage? because otherwise i fail to see why the distinction between there being a specific individual to blame vs no specific person to blame for a pre-existing medical condition not caused by abuse is at all relevant to the issue. the problem is that women cannot get treatment for their medical care. period. distinguishing between types of medical care and whether one woman is more deserving of care (or denying care to one woman more morally abhorrent than denying care to another) will necessarily lead to blaming someone, or at least penalizing them, for their medical conditions. and like rachel says, nobody is to blame for any pre-existing condition.

  14. September 18, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    I’m not sure if this was what Jillian was getting at, and I won’t presume to speak for her, but one of the reasons I was particularly troubled by the “domestic violence as a preexisting condition” issue is that, from what I’ve read, some insurance companies don’t even require any sort of actual physical injury — all they look at is if you’ve ever filed a complaint for domestic violence, and then increase your premiums if you have. That puts it into a new category of not even knowing whether there were physical injuries, but treating you as if you have a physical condition anyway.

    Obviously I agree that the “preexisting condition” qualification is horrible for any reason at all. I also find the “blame” framing problematic. But I think there is a fair argument that DV as a preexisting condition is particularly horrifying, at least in the way that it plays out here, because it’s effectively punishing women who try to get out of abusive situations.

    As an aside, I actually wouldn’t be opposed to insurance companies penalizing abusers, in a manner of speaking. Make the insurance company cover the injuries, but then allow them to sue the abuser to recoup their losses. That wouldn’t keep me up at night.

    • September 18, 2009 at 7:57 pm

      Yes, but all pre-existing conditions work the same way. It’s punishing a person for having diabetes. It’s punishing a person for having a mental health condition. It’s punishing a person for having cancer, or high blood pressure, or kidney problems, or arthritis, or whatever. All of it is about punishing people for being unwell and seeking care.

      What a lot of people are objecting to in expressing special horror over domestic violence and previous c-sections being considered a pre-existing condition is that we don’t see those same people expressing such concern over people being denied treatment because of their chronic conditions or disabilities. And with so many people talking about this now, and again failing to talk about the rest, it makes it seem as though this is a cause that everyone can get behind and trumpet as an example of why people should oppose our current health care system specifically because it’s not associated with disability.

      (A lot of that is a paraphrase of what Amandaw has said in other places, to give credit where credit is due.)

  15. Jillian
    September 18, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    While this post was focused on insurance companies’ treatment of victims of domestic violence–an issue that specifically, detrimentally affects women–I absolutely AM outraged over the treatment of those with preexisting conditions. And in fact I did speak to this outrage (in the second paragraph.) The piece is focused on domestic violence as a preexisting condition not only because this is a feminist blog, but because of the fact that it is a much less well-known form of discrimination by insurance companies.

    I think my final sentence does an effective job of asserting that this practice is part of a larger, more systematic problem- which is the insurance companies’ objectification of human beings.

    Finally, this article discussing deaths caused in large part by a lack of health insurance was posted on the front page of the Huffington Post yesterday. I hope I’ve made it clear that i was in no way attempting to diminish the seriousness of denying healthcare to those with preexisting medical conditions–it just was not the focus of this specific post.

  16. bethrjacobs
    September 19, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Essentially it is blame the vic. that isn’t told as in for example an auto accident to wait for the other party to pay the bill for domestic violence and rape kits or by comparison isn’t told she has a preexisting condition and no record. On the contrary and I haven’t had insurance in twenty years but as I learned about in my rape counseling training the Vic. Is going to be asked to submit the bill to the insurance co…And I would go as far as surmising that unless she wins a case against her abuser/rapist in court it will be a part of her medical record as is an auto accident even if you aren’t at fault.

  17. September 21, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    I want to point out that Allstate and State Farm DO NOT deny life and health insurance to victims of domestic violence. That information was from 1995. Instead they have become proactive in addressing domestic violence as a workplace issue for their employees and for the public in general. Please visit to learn more. It is important to see that these companies have seen the light on this important issue.

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