Domestic Violence: A Pre-Existing Condition?

March is Women's History Month,
recognizing women's central role in society. Unfortunately, violence
against women is epidemic in the United States and around the world.

Domestic violence is on the minds of many
now, as reports published by The New York Times implicate New York Gov.
David Paterson in an alleged attempt to influence a domestic violence
case against one of his top aides. The Times reports, based in part on
unnamed sources, say that the Paterson aide, David W. Johnson, attacked
his girlfriend on Halloween night, Oct. 31, 2009, "choking her,
smashing her into a mirrored dresser and preventing her from calling
for help." New York state police from the governor's personal
protection detail contacted the victim, despite having no jurisdiction.
Then the governor himself intervened, the Times alleges, asking two
aides to contact the victim and to arrange a phone call between him and
the victim. The call occurred on Feb. 7 of this year, the night before
the victim was to appear in court to request an order of protection
from Johnson. She did not appear in court, and the case was dismissed.
After the expose, the governor ended his bid for election and suspended
Johnson without pay.

Denise O'Donnell, Paterson's deputy
secretary for public safety and commissioner of the state's Division of
Criminal Justice Services, resigned last week, saying, "The behavior
alleged here is the antithesis of what many of us have spent our entire
careers working to build-a legal system that protects victims of
domestic violence and brings offenders to justice." The National
Organization for Women, a longtime ally of Paterson, has called on him
to resign.

The Paterson scandal follows that of New
York state Sen. Hiram Monserrate, who was charged with assaulting a
female companion with the jagged edge of a broken glass in December
2008. She later altered her story to conform to Monserrate's version of
events, but the weakened criminal case proceeded against him, without
her cooperation, and he was found guilty of misdemeanor assault. He was
expelled from the New York Senate last month.

These high-profile cases are sadly
symptomatic of a massive problem. The Family Violence Prevention Fund
offers this chilling summary of domestic violence in the U.S.: 1 in 4
women report violence at the hands of a current or former spouse or
boyfriend at some point in their lives; three women per day are
murdered by their husbands or boyfriends; women suffer 2 million
injuries from intimate-partner violence each year; and there were
248,300 rapes/sexual assaults in 2007, more than 500 per day, up from
190,600 in 2005.

Barack Obama has reaffirmed October as National Domestic Violence
Awareness Month, and stressed the link between the economy and domestic
violence: "In the best of economic times, victims worry about finding a
job and housing, and providing for their children; these problems only
intensify during periods of financial stress." Sen. Harry Reid said
about domestic abuse last week: "It has gotten out of hand. Why? Men
don't have jobs. Women don't have jobs either, but women aren't
abusive, most of the time. Men, when they're out of work, tend to
become abusive. Our domestic crisis shelters in Nevada are jammed. It's
the way it is all over the country."

Given the severity of the problem of
domestic violence, and its likely exacerbation by the economic crisis,
it is hard to believe that so-called health insurance companies
actually label a woman's victimization by domestic violence as a
"pre-existing condition." The term has long been used by health
insurance corporations to deny coverage to applicants or, perhaps
worse, to retroactively deny coverage to people who suffered from a
condition before they were insured.

At Obama's bipartisan health care summit
last week, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter pointed out, "Eight states in
this country right now have declared that domestic violence is a
pre-existing condition, on the grounds, I assume, that if you've been
unlucky enough to get yourself beaten up once, you might go round and
do it again."

March 8 is recognized by the United
Nations and many countries around the world (but not the U.S.) as
International Women's Day. March is Women's History Month. Thousands of
events are being held around the world to honor women. Let's start here
in the U.S. by making violence against women history.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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