BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The commonplace practice of billing rape victims in Louisiana for medical exams should come to an end after state lawmakers Tuesday signed off on proposed law changes that the federal government has required for a decade.
"Ten years ago they identified that there was this particular problem," said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the legislation as well as a companion proposal that reimburses hospitals with unclaimed gambling winnings.
But until recently nothing of consequence was done, Moreno said.
Now, both her proposals are headed to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal after receiving final legislative passage with two unanimous House votes Tuesday. Jindal supports the measures and is expected to sign them into law.
Moreno credited several rape victims who came forward over the past year, publicizing thousands of dollars in medical bills they received. Some displayed their bills in legislative committees while delivering moving testimony.
"Without them coming forward, who knows how much longer this would have persisted?" Moreno said.
Billing rape victims for a forensic exam is forbidden by the Violence Against Women Act and many states are compliant with the law, experts say. Still, anecdotal reports of local hospitals and authorities billing women persist across the country, said Rebecca O'Connor, a policy expert for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a victims advocacy group.
Rape victims have reported receiving bills in Illinois, Nevada and Ohio, O'Connor said. But Louisiana is an "extreme" case, she said.
Here, parishes have refused to pay for victims' medical exams unless they are willing to report their assault to authorities. Authorities in some parishes have also reportedly administered lie detector tests to victims.
Those practices should come to an end under the changes.
One of Moreno's bills requires local authorities to develop clear guidelines for gathering forensic evidence, storing it and submitting it for DNA testing.
It would allow health care providers to seek reimbursement from the state crime victims board for the cost of gathering DNA evidence, screening for sexually transmitted diseases and offering pregnancy testing. Hospitals would be allowed to bill a victim's insurance company with the victim's permission, but insurers couldn't require a victim to pay a deductible, co-pay or other share of the costs.
The measures are part of a package of legislation sponsored by Moreno and Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, that is intended to improve the way sexual assaults are handled in Louisiana. Also headed to Jindal after winning final passage from the state Senate on Tuesday was Morrell's bill requiring police to have improved sexual assault training.
House Bills 835 and 143: www.legis.la.gov