The Senate currently has before it a bill that would prohibit various forms of discrimination in the insurance industry, including discrimination on the basis of sex. To hear the industry representatives tell it, as they did at a hearing yesterday, taking sex out of insurance would create economic disruption of a magnitude that would make us forget what happened when Congress took sex out of credit.
Women, particularly divorced women, were considered bad credit risks, reminisced Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), who presided at yesterday's hearing. If you gave women equal access to credit, the country would be in bankruptcy.
The country survived. And yesterday's hearing was to find out whether the country could survive yet another assault on convenient, traditional ways of doing business that, whether intentionally or not, discriminate against groups of people based solely on their sex. Both sexes have been hurt by it.
Young men pay more for automobile insurance than do young women because they have more accidents. Is it fair to charge all teen-age males for the sins of their sex? Or is it more fair to set a unisex rate for teen-agers, based on such factors as frequency and type of driving, how many hours of driver education and behind-the-wheel practice they've had, and then sock them with a unisex rate increase after their first accident?
Women, according to testimony, are frequently victims of discriminatory treatment in health insurance, particularly in large employe plans. Maternity coverage, for example, often is either excluded or set at a level that is lower than maternity care costs. Quinalee Brown, of the American Association of University Women, said working women are unable to buy adequate protection against disabilities stemming from maternity. Insurance companies claim that maternity is a voluntary condition. Yet these same companies provide disability coverage "for male-specific risks," such as vasectomies.
Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) said the industry places women in double jeopardy, charging them more for pension coverage on the assumption that women live longer and yet charging women the same rates for life insurance as they charge men. "Thus they ignored sex differences when they would have helped women," he said.
While policies often don't cover maternity-related disabilities, they include maternity as a justification for higher rates for women, he said. In life insurance, sex is given greater weight as a cause of death than are smoking and obesity.
George K. Bernstein, of the American Insurance Association, claimed that the bill would cost women $700 million more in auto insurance premiums, that it would force them to pay more for life insurance, that men would have to pay more for health insurance although they use it less, and that they would have to pay more than their share of annuities so that women can receive higher benefits. He predicted grave market disruption and terrible costs to municipalities and individuals.
Barbara Bergmann, an economist B and professor at the University of Maryland, agreed that there would be reapportionment in some of the pension pools, but said there are adequate reserves in the systems to do that. She referred to industry figures as "scare estimates."
Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Texas Law School who has done research on discrimination in insurance, and Robert T. Freeman Jr., president of Consumers United Insurance Co. in Washington, who advised several African nations on insurance and helped found a number of prospering unisex insurance companies abroad, both saw the bill as something more than an insurance bill; it is, they said, a civil rights bill.
The question, said Freeman, "is not one of data, it is one of dignity. It is not a debate over equations, but rather a question of equality. It is . . . an issue that must be resolved on moral, philosophical and ethical grounds, not on actuarial tables."
Race and religion are no longer tolerated as basis for insurance rates. Mormons, who lived longer as a group, don't get a better break than Catholics. Sex has been tolerated as a basis for discrimination in part because people don't know it about it and they don't understand the insurance industry. It has hurt men and women, young and old, at some time or another. But it has been a matter of convenience to the industry. Discrimination is always convenient to somebody. But that has never made it right.