Gov. Pataki Sent Bill to Repeal Drunk Drivers’ Insurance Exclusion

By | August 15, 2005

New York would join a growing list of states to repeal laws allowing insurance carriers to deny payment of medical bills for people injured while driving drunk under a measure sent to Gov. George Pataki.

Under current state law, doctors and hospitals that try to collect payment for treating someone injured while intoxicated almost never get paid, even though state and federal law requires them to treat anyone injured.

Enacted in the late 1940s, the “alcohol exclusion” law aimed to save insurance companies money and keep intoxicated drivers off the road by forcing them to pay for treatment if they’re in an accident.

Supporters of a measure to discard the law, including the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, say it discourages doctors from testing injured drivers for alcohol because insurance companies won’t have to pay for the treatment. That means drunken drivers will fail to be diagnosed, get counseling and will continue to endanger the lives of themselves and others, they contend.

Republican state Sen. John Bonacic, a sponsor of the bill, also says it’s “morally wrong” to make physicians treat someone without being compensated.

A similar measure to repeal the statute was vetoed by Pataki last year.

“There has been a full-court press this year,” Bonacic said. “I’m hopeful this year he’ll reconsider.”

Assemblyman Alexander Grannis, chairman of the Assembly’s Insurance Committee, says there is no proof the existing law works.

“The fact that the insurance commissioners themselves are supporting the repeal acknowledges that while well-intentioned, the law” has not succeeded, the Manhattan Democrat said. “This is a realization that the law today has had unintended consequences — hospitals won’t test for drunkenness and might miss a diagnosis and an opportunity to intercede in the life of habitual alcoholic.”

The bill sent to Pataki allows insurance companies to try to recoup their costs by suing clients who are hurt while driving drunk.

The insurance industry is opposed to changing the statute.

The repeal measure “sends the wrong message about New York’s tolerance for drunk driving,” said Ellen Melchionni, vice president with the New York Insurance Association. “We want to hold drivers accountable for their actions.”

Melchionni said hospitals could hire collection agencies to go after patients, but simply don’t want to go through the hassle involved in tracking down delinquent accounts.

Expanding coverage to include acts such as drunken driving would encourage people to act irresponsibly. Once drunken drivers who are injured see their bills, they “realize the repercussions” of their actions, she said.

The insurance industry also contends the legislation would merely shift costs onto consumers, who would have to pay higher premiums.

Alcohol exclusion laws are currently on the books in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Seven states —Iowa, Maryland, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington — have repealed or amended their law since 2001, according to Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems, a health initiative run by the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington.

Last year, 16,694 Americans were killed in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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