By Joe Duggan / World-Herald Bureau
LINCOLN — Federal law dictates that law enforcement agencies in Nebraska and other states cover the cost for forensic rape examinations.
But the law doesn’t always prevent billing documents from showing up in the victim’s mailbox, said Amy Richardson, president of the Women’s Center for Advancement in Omaha.
Fees exceeding $1,000 have even appeared on insurance statements seen by the victim’s parents before the victim was ready to talk about what had happened, Richardson said, based on the experiences of professional advocates who help victims of sexual assault navigate the legal system.
“They come to us in a panic and say, ‘My gosh, look at these bills,’ ” she said. “It’s so traumatizing for anybody who’s been assaulted, then this happens on top of it.”
A bill pending in the Nebraska Legislature would create a new statewide fund to prevent those sorts of lapses when it comes to paying for what are called rape kit exams.
A rape kit is a package of materials that typically includes a checklist, a comb, swabs and laboratory containers for the collection and preservation of forensic evidence. The exam should be administered by a trained nurse or doctor within hours of a sexual assault to obtain the strongest physical evidence.
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson supports the proposed legislation, which would require his office to administer a program estimated to cost at least $500,000 a year. Assistant Attorney General Ryan Post testified for the measure at a recent public hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
“This bill is about making sure that all victims of sexual crimes receive the best care at a facility located near them from a trained professional who is using an up-to-date kit,” Post said.
Nebraska is one of 12 states without a program to pay for rape kit exams. In Iowa, which has covered the costs of the exams since 1979, hospitals submit bills directly to the program administered by Attorney General Tom Miller.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln introduced Legislative Bill 1097 to create the Nebraska program. The bill has nine co-sponsors, including six of Morfeld’s colleagues on the Judiciary Committee.
Morfeld said the bill takes the burden of paying for the exams off of law enforcement agencies with the goal of improving the quality and availability of the exams.
The Omaha Police Department testified in support of the measure, although the department did not provide the amount it pays annually for rape kit exams. But senators on the panel heard testimony that 314 sexual assault victims were treated at just two of Omaha’s hospitals in 2015.
The Lincoln Police Department spent $72,000 on rape kit exams last year and $101,000 in fiscal year 2014, said Officer Katie Flood.
A legislative fiscal analysis of the Nebraska bill has not been completed because if passed, the law would not take effect until July 1, 2017, Morfeld said. The Attorney General’s Office, however, estimates that the program would cost between $500,000 and $750,000, based on up to 1,000 rape kit exams annually.
Morfeld said he expects that the state would qualify for federal grants through the Violence Against Women Act to deflect some of the costs of the program.
In addition to paying for the exams, Morfeld’s proposal would require distribution of free sexual assault examination kits to health care providers across the state. And it requires more training to increase the number and capability of sexual assault nurse examiners, especially in rural areas, to cut down on travel time for victims.
One of the strengths of the bill is that it spells out what services the state will cover, said Stephanie Huddle of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence in Lincoln. Confusion over coverage has sometimes factored into bills being sent to victims.
For example, the legislation says the Nebraska program would pay for costs associated with examining the patient and the exam room space. It also would cover fees for laboratory testing and screening for sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.
“This bill makes the process and expectation of payment much more clear,” Huddle said.
Anne Boatright, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Methodist and Methodist Women’s Hospitals in Omaha, also spoke in support of the bill. Sexual assault can result in health effects long after the attack, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, suicide and stress-induced heart attacks and strokes, Boatright said.
Providing resources to improve the quality of rape kit exams helps authorities prosecute perpetrators. But it can also help victims heal, she said.
“With these potential health implications, it’s important for victims to be free from stress related to the financial costs of their immediate care following rape,” she said.
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