Note to hospitals: Stop charging rape victims for their exams and care

Although Portland Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano deliberately buried the lede in his profile of Brenda Tracy last week, it was a story that concluded on a far more inspirational note than it began.

Tracy is a 40-year-old manager of a mobile dialysis program for Legacy Health in Oregon, a nurse who also holds an MBA. But she is better known now for identifying herself as the victim of gang rape by four men--three  of them college football players--16 years ago. Two of the players were on the Oregon State University roster, and that institution protected their players over her. Mike Riley, the Oregon State coach, said his players made a "bad choice" and suspended them for a game. Little more than six months after the incident occurred, he was hired to coach the San Diego Chargers, but has since returned to his old coaching job.

Riley's tone deafness and the general lack of support Tracy received--her boyfriend and her best friend pushed her to downplay what happened--eventually prompted her not to press charges. That's despite the fact that physical evidence against her perpetrators was overwhelming and the accused implicated each other in statements.

Tracy was a 24-year-old waitress, a single mother of two kids at the time of her attack. But she wound up receiving so much compassion and support from the nurse who administered her rape kit exam that it turned out to be life-changing. Three months after the low point in her life, she was in nursing school.

Tracy's story is among the many reasons why every hospital in the country--every single one of them--needs to stop charging rape victims for their exams and follow-up care. Right now.

As FierceHealthFinance previouly reported, confusion among local and state jurisdictions as to who is supposed to pay for a rape kit means hospitals in as many as 13 states--more than a quarter of the country--are charging rape victims for their exams and follow-up care such as anti-HIV medications.

In some cases, the bills are well into the four figures. A Wisconsin television news program recently interviewed a Chicago-area rape victim who said she was re-victimized every time she was sent another bill. It took an advocacy group 10 months to finally get the bills to stop coming. For some reason, the hospital was not named.

In big-hearted Texas, the state will only cover the cost of a rape exam if the victim presses charges and fully cooperates with law enforcement, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. Had Tracy been victimized in Dallas rather than Corvallis, she'd have been legally mandated to pay her bill.

There have been no confirmed cases of rape victims having to fend off collection agencies or even file for bankruptcy because of the medical expenses related to the crimes they suffered. However, given that medical bills are the leading cause for bankruptcy in this country, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if there were many such people.

The United States is far ahead of many countries in terms of how we confront rape. In many nations, family members will kill a daughter, sister or wife who was raped, shun them, or even force them to marry the perpetrator.

But just because we don't reside in the Stone Age on this issue does not mean we are paragons of virtue. Universities have an institutional tendency to bury claims of rape by students, whether they're football players or not. Police departments are often unsympathetic to the victims, and as a recent viral video showed, a woman walking on the streets of New York is verbally and even physically harassed by men as a matter of course.

Hospitals often struggle to define their community benefits and quantify their costs. Not charging a rape victim for their care is no-brainer. If a hospital's electronic medical record system can point out contraindicated drugs and other issues of care, it can certainly flag a patient who is a victim of rape or sexual assault and make sure they are not billed.

My suggestion is the IT teams and the finance executives in the hospitals in those 13 states get together and create a workable system and put it into place. Since it's only Tuesday, they should get it done by week's end. - Ron (@FierceHealth)