January 27, 2009                                                         Contact:Lucas Hamilton

Lawmakers debate insurance gender discrimination


      By The Associated Press
      
      HELENA - The insurance industry said Tuesday it could lower some rates if allowed to consider gender when evaluating risk, advocating yet another attempt to repeal the state's unique "unisex" insurance law.
      
      Supporters of the old law said it isn't fair to establish different rates based upon gender, and said the old anti-discrimination law has worked well for years.
      
      A state Senate panel is looking at the new plan to repeal Montana's 25-year-old anti-gender discrimination law. It bans the use of gender in establishing rates on everything from car insurance to life insurance.
      
      "It seems like we are about the last state of all 50 holding onto this so-called unisex insurance provision," said Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan. "And because of that it has created higher rates and less opportunity to have more insurance companies and policies provided for Montana citizens."
      
      Insurance agents told the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs committee that some insurance companies aren't willing to establish separate rates for such a small state - so everyone just gets charged more.
      
      State Auditor Monica Lindeen, who regulates the insurance industry, said the unisex law actually keeps rates lower, and repealing it would hurt Montanans.
      
      "For 25 years, no legislature has overturned it and there is good reason why every attempt has failed," said Lindeen, a former legislator. "Why would we tolerate women paying more for their health insurance."
      
      The governor's office also opposed the new legislation to repeal the unisex protection. Lawmakers were told that one legislative attempt to repeal it back in the late 1980s was vetoed by Gov. Ted Schwinden, who argued the constitution prevents such gender discrimination.
      
      The bill faces a tough road in a sharply divided Legislature.
      
      Republicans control the Senate, where the bill is being presented, but Democrats who are more sympathetic to the original law oversee a 50-50 split in the House.
      
      Perry said he really believes that repealing the unisex provision would result in lower rates for everyone.
      
      "I brought this forward as a bill not to stir up controversy, but to fix something I felt was unfair and unjust and though might improve our situation in Montana," Perry said.