House lawmakers unveil bipartisan bill curbing surprise medical charges for sexual assault victims

A bipartisan trio of lawmakers announced a bill Tuesday requiring private health insurers to cover forensic medical exams for sexual assault victims to protect them from out-of-pocket costs and surprise medical bills.

The No Surprises for Survivors Act, sponsored by Reps. Linda T. Sánchez, D-California, Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, and Carol Miller, R-West Virginia, looks to expand on existing federal legislation called the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

For roughly 28 years, the standing law has prevented victims from being billed for evidence collection as well as rape kit examinations. However, certain requirements such as the need for an accredited sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) to perform a medical exam have forced many victims to pay up following an attack, research shows.

“No one should have to worry about getting a surprise bill in the mail, especially following a traumatic experience like a sexual assault. Unfortunately, many survivors still find themselves stuck with unexpected charges,” Sánchez said in a press release. "Our bipartisan bill will help right that wrong, ensuring more survivors have access to the care they need and deserve.”

A New England Journal of Medicine study published last week found more than 17,800 individuals who went to emergency rooms for sexual assault in 2019 paid an average $3,551 out-of-pocket, with higher costs incurred for self-pay patients and those whose abuse occurred during pregnancy. The NEJM study noted that just a fifth of sexual assault survivors seek medical care following an attack, with some avoiding care due to potential bills.

Additionally, a Kaiser Family Foundation study from March found that some victims still see charges for medical examinations that should have been covered under VAWA, either due to the limited number of certified SANEs among U.S. provider organizations or hospital teams that mistakenly send patients the bill for their examination.

Regardless of where they are administered, the No Surprises for Survivors Act would place the onus on private payers to provide full coverage for forensic medical exams that aren’t already reimbursed by the government under VAWA, according to the lawmakers’ announcement.

Private payers would also be required to give patients “appropriate notice to help victims avoid bills and streamline the reimbursement process” when the government is responsible for out-of-pocket payments, the lawmakers said.

Additionally, forensic medical exams performed in any setting would be covered as an emergency service under the 2020 No Surprises Act to prevent the delivery of surprise medical bills, they said.

“Sexual assault is one of the most abhorrent acts of violence a woman can experience,” Miller said in a press release. “It is unacceptable for any sexual assault victim to receive a bill for a forensic medical exam, which is critical to ensuring their recovery and collecting any evidence needed for an investigation. This commonsense, bipartisan legislation will protect victims and ensure no woman who experiences sexual violence has to pay a dime for a forensic medical exam.”

The No Surprises for Survivors Act is being considered Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee alongside a slew of proposed bills addressing healthcare coverage and services.