The news: "You never really think, 'Is rape covered by insurance?'"
But that's the question a New Orleans woman found herself asking after being sexually assaulted and charged $3,700 in medical bills.
In a harrowing exposé published in the Times-Picayune last week, reporter Rebecca Catalanello explores an all-too-often occurrence in Louisiana: Hospitals and insurers billing women for medical costs associated with post-rape treatment. While federal law makes rape kits available for free to sexual assault victims, there is still a litany of costs — pregnancy and sexually transmitted-infection tests, emergency contraception, HIV drugs — that is not covered and is passed on to the recovering women.
"Now, the fear of retaliation is real to me. Now, the fear of the police not doing a good job is real to me. Now, the fear of the court system taking over my life is real to me," another survivor told the Times-Picayune. "It feels like a crime happened to you, and then you're getting charged for the crime."
This is a huge problem not just for these women, but for future rape survivors. While Louisiana and other states may not be strictly required to pay for post-rape treatment, they have to contend with the idea that women might be less inclined to come forward and report their attacks if they know they have to foot the bill afterward. Forensic examinations are already invasive and time-consuming for victims — if you add a big medical bill to the equation, the process becomes even more distressing.
"Sexual assault is already one of the most underreported crimes, period," said Amanda Tonkovich, a survivor advocate, told the Times-Picayune. "Even if people don't want to report, we want them to come to the hospital and make sure they're OK, medically speaking."
The financial hassle that sexual assault survivors face highlights just how differently rape is treated from other crimes. As one advocate points out, it's not as though burglary victims get billed for fingerprint analysis.
And while there are state victim-reparation funds and hospital charity funds, many of these come with legal strings: namely, filing a police report. Given that two-thirds of sexual assault cases are not reported to the police, the pool of women with access to this funding is pretty small.
Lawmakers have promised action. A more heartening piece of news is that Catalanello's piece has already drawn attention in Louisiana. By Thursday evening, lawmakers were already responding with shock and outrage regarding the Times-Picayune article.
"I had no idea that was happening," state Rep. Helena Moreno (D-New Orleans) told the paper, vowing to make the issue a priority. "Talk about being traumatized twice."
And as advocates pointed out, a way to convince lawmakers and policymakers to act on this issue might be to frame it as a state problem and not just a women's problem. "Because it's a crime against the state, I think the state really needs to figure out how to solve this issue," victim
s advocate Racheal Hebert told the paper. "You would never have a murder victim pay for their autopsy. It's gruesome to think of it that way, but I think the onus is on the government to cover those costs for crime victims."
If more women decide not to report their sexual assault because they are frightened away by the financial costs involved, that's a direct threat to public safety, and a fault on the part of the state.