Healthcare & Domestic Abuse: Human Rights Hearing Testimony

The following was submitted by a individual we surveyed this summer in Brattleboro. It was read in its entirety at the Human Rights Hearing in Brattleboro.

Sept, 2008

I am a resident of West Brattleboro, Vermont. Earlier this month at Brattleboro's Gallery Walk, I was asked to participate in a survey about health insurance. While I do have health insurance provided through my ex-husband, I felt it was important to share my experiences. I was delighted that at long last, someone was even willing to ask the questions. I am quite certain that my experiences are shared by many in vulnerable situations.

One of the questions on the survey asked if I had ever stayed in an abusive relationship in order to maintain health insurance benefits. Indeed I have. Years ago, while I was still married to my ex, who was an abusive active alcoholic, I made an attempt to leave the relationship. I had two small children at the time: ages 6 and 3. My oldest child had recently been diagnosed with cancer. It was not an easy time to launch into the perils of single-parenthood as I knew my life was at risk. It never occurred to me that my daughter's life would be on the line not only from the cancer, but from her own vulnerability to the consequences of domestic violence.

As I was preparing to exit the relationship, my husband threatened me that if I left him, he would cancel the health insurance for the family. Once the insurance lapsed, the cancer would have caused my child to be excluded from alternative coverage due to her pre-existing condition of cancer. It was a certain death sentence for my 6 year old child. A risk I was not willing to take.

At the time, the courts would not have issued an immediate injunction against his canceling the health insurance. Once it was cancelled, my daughter's cancer would have precluded her from coverage through another policy. My ex knew that, had calculated that, and used it in the cruelest way to force me to stay in the relationship.

So I stayed. Of course I stayed. If leaving meant that your child would surely die a very painful death – an entirely unnecessary death, wouldn't you stay? Of course you would. Any responsible parent would. Over the years, the cancer recurred 7 times, each time leaving me entirely unable to exit the relationship. I stayed married to the abuser for 22 years waiting until I had opportunities to ensure my daughter's safety and her health insurance. The moment I was assured that she had insurance of her own, I left my husband.

Oddly enough, he has maintained the health insurance on me for 15 years since our divorce! Why? He is under no obligation to do so. The reason is because he, as the subscriber to the policy, has all the advantages. As the subscriber to the policy, he is able to find out who my physicians are and what treatments or tests I may have had. I can keep my location secret from him, but if I use the health insurance, then he has access to the location of my doctors. It is a short leap to figure out my whereabouts.

HIPPA regulations do little or nothing to prevent this in situations of domestic violence. They leave the onus of responsibility on the insurance companies, who are classically unwilling to pay whatever slight administrative or clerical costs to shield the information from an abuser. Their comments to me have been that they are not willing to protect victims of domestic violence because it may leave them vulnerable to litigation if they were to "slip up" and not implement a policy. So they are better protected by having no policy of protection to begin with.

I spent 22 years in that abusive relationship and because of this nightmare with the health insurance coverage, I am still "attached" to that man who so willingly imperiled my life and my daughter's life to maintain power and control over me. The health insurance companies, in my opinion, are in collusion with him by their callous unwillingness to consider the circumstances of abuse.

People ask of battered women all the time: why don't they just leave? Believe me; it is not because leaving has never occurred to us. We contemplate it every moment we can remain alive to do so. We are fully aware of the statistics that say the risk of lethality (being the victim of homicide) rises 70% as a woman prepares to leave an abusive relationship.

If you knew that taking an action, increased your chance of death by 70% would you do it? Victims are well aware of those risks, because they live it and because on average, a victim attempts to leave 6 times before being successful. They don't remain in an abusive relationship because they like it (If she stays, she must like it) or because they are just lazy (victims are acculturated to hyper vigilance because they must assure their own survival in order to remain alive long enough to raise their children).

There are many, many reasons why a victim stays. But she NEVER stays because she likes it. Never.

The time has come to provide some relief for victims of domestic violence. If that one hurdle of the health insurance had not been placed in my way, I not only could have gotten my child through her cancer treatments, but she would not have been subject to all those added years of having to witness domestic violence.

I have asked that this testimony be given anonymously. Not because I am ashamed of my past, or even particularly because I still fear him, although I do. I have asked because I have never been able to tell my daughter the real reason we stayed through all the abuse. She certainly has asked because she wants to know why she had to suffer through all those years. But I could never look her in the eye and tell her that her own father was willing to sacrifice her life for his own selfish purposes. I couldn't tell her that the system has been unwilling to do anything to protect me, or her, or whoever may be suffering the same abuse today.

Somehow, someway, we must gather enough support to provide health coverage for everyone so that stories like mine never happen again. You have the capability to do something about this. Please don't turn away.

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If you have or know of any stories like this where the lack of the basic right to healthcare violates our most fundamental human rights please contact us at 802-861-2877 or healthcare[at]workerscenter.org