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'Unisex' insurance law begins

HELENA, Mont. -- The nation's first comprehensive'unisex' insurance law went into effect in Montana Tuesday, prohibiting companies from using gender or marital status to set premium rates and policy benefits.

The state's unique insurance law was passed in 1983 on the basis of complaints by women that different premium rates for men and women, based on statistical records comparing the two groups' risk of loss, was discriminatory.

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The law was delayed going into effect for two years to allow insurance companies time to revise their rate books. The insurance industry fought hard for repeal of the law but was unsuccessful.

Four other states apply the 'unisex' principle to automobile insurance, but Montana's new law is the first to extend it to all types of insurance.

'Insurance is one of the few remaining areas where blatant sex discrimination is still sanctioned,' Ann Brodsky of the Women's Lobbyist Fund, a Montana women's rights group, said.

Officials said they were unsure what the full impact of the 'unisex' insurance law on policyholders would be.

One result may be costlier auto insurance for women under 25 who previously have enjoyed low rates based on statistics showing they have fewer accidents

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Young men, historically charged more for insurance because they belong to a group having the largest number of accidents, now may be charged less for coverage.

Another leveling effect may occur in health and life insurance rates.

Some insurance industry spokesmen predict that women and men will pay the same premium rates if they are in the same age brackets and have similar medical backgrounds.

Women have enjoyed a price break on life insurance because they belong to a group that generally lives longer But the argument from women's rights advocates is that life insurance policies for women achieve less value than those for men because of a lower final payout.

Individual health insurance premium rates will be affected, too. Women have been charged more than men, based on statistics showing women see doctors more often than men for a variety of reasons as well as the child-bearing factor.

The Montana women who fought for 'unisex' insurance said the state has a tradition of leadership in women's rights.

Montana women had the right to vote six years before the Constitution was amended in 1920 with the 19th Amendment expanding that right nationwide. The first woman in Congress, in 1916, was Jeannette Rankin of Montana.

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