RALEIGH — Victims of sexual violence in North Carolina will no longer be forced to pay for the forensic exams needed to help capture their attackers.
The N.C. General Assembly approved more than $1 million this summer to revamp a program designed to help cover the cost of rape kit exams for uninsured victims. The exams are used to collect bodily evidence of an attacker and are standard in the prosecution of sex crimes.
Now, hospitals will settle directly with the state, sparing victims of sexual assault the aggravation and trauma of receiving a bill.
The News & Observer reported in February that the vast majority of the estimated 3,000 patients examined for rape in North Carolina hospitals last year were shouldering a portion of the bill. Legislators promised swift action, saying it wasn't fair for rape victims to have to pay for the state to prosecute sex offenders.
"It seemed inhumane to not take care of this," said state Rep. Alice Bordsen, a Democrat from Alamance County and one of the sponsors of the legislation.
This summer, legislators quadrupled the amount of money the program had to cover the costs of rape kit exams, carving out a $1,078,078 appropriation that will renew each year.
The increased funding comforted victims who, for years, had to settle these costs on their own.
"The bills just throw the attack up in your face over and over again and make it that much harder for the wounds to heal," said a 36-year-old Wake County woman who was raped in 2006. Months after her attack, the bills for WakeMed hospital began arriving, urging her to pay the $600 that her insurance didn't cover. The News & Observer does not typically identify those who report being sexually assaulted.
Now, for patients with insurance, hospitals will bill the insurer, then settle any co-payments and deductibles with the state. Bills for uninsured patients will be sent, as they have been, directly to the state's Rape Victims Assistance Program.
Aside from the forensic exam, the program also will pay for the victim's initial visits to a mental health provider. From there, legislators hope the provider can link the victim with other financial help for the counseling.
"We needed to get them in the chute," Bordsen said. "They are the walking wounded otherwise."
Legislators locked hospitals into a set rate for the tests; the state will pay the hospital a total of $800, including $200 for ambulance transportation. The program, or its counterpart Victims Crime Compensation Fund, likely will be able to pay for other medical treatment needed because of an attack.
The rates are far below what hospitals had been billing the state for rape kit exam services. The average bill to the program last year was $1,600.
"We have some concerns whether it will cover the actual costs," said Don Dalton, spokesman for the N.C. Hospital Association. Dalton said hospital officials, however, did applaud the state for taking financial responsibility for rape victims' tests. He said they may revisit the funding levels with legislators in the future.
Hospitals are now prohibited from settling with the victim for the forensic exam.
"We are not going to allow that," said state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, a Democrat from Carrboro and one of the bill's sponsors. "Hospitals are just going to have to live with it."
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