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Lawsuit charges Bank of America and Provident Insurance Co. with discrimination against the disabled

A disability-rights organization is suing Bank of America and Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co. for allegedly discriminating against disabled customers with a term life insurance offering that excluded all but the most robust applicants. The lawsuit was filed July 24, 2001, in California Superior Court in Oakland by Californians for Disability Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Mailed in early June 2001 to 3.8 million Bank of America customers in California, the offer extended low-premium term life insurance to customers who complied with the policy's "good health" rules. Under those rules, customers had to sign a statement that in the last five years, they had not been diagnosed with or treated for any problem with the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys, brain or nervous system, cancer, AIDS, HIV, or diabetes.

"Virtually every person with a disability is precluded from buying this insurance."

California law prohibits insurers from turning down customers on the basis of physical or mental impairments without actuarial data or other hard numbers to back up their decision.

The term life insurance was marketed under the Provident name, but the financial risk was borne by a subsidiary of Fortis Group, American Bankers Life Assurance Co.

A Fortis spokesperson, Jim Sykes, says the company believes its offer was "fully compliant" with California law.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would stop Bank of America and Provident from using similar provisions in future life insurance offers. It also requests that the bank mail a "corrective notice" to each customer who received the term life offer, telling customers that they are not excluded from coverage simply because they are disabled.

The exclusions have disability-rights advocates claiming Bank of America's offer arbitrarily refuses to insure the disabled, who see doctors about the problems listed on a more frequent basis than people without disabilities.

"I understand an insurance company trying to protect itself against risk, but somebody went overboard in that effort at Bank of America or Provident," says Sid Wolinsky, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "Virtually every person with a disability is precluded from buying this insurance. If they had deliberately set out to exclude everyone, they couldn't have done better."

Wolinsky says most people with disabilities have normal or only slightly diminished life expectancies, hardly diminished enough to warrant exclusion from a term life policy. For example, Wolinsky says a former polio patient who has a leg impairment from that disease, and sees his doctor regularly, would be excluded from Bank of America's offer because he obtains treatment for a disorder of the nervous system.

"Neither Bank of America nor Provident discriminates," says Provident spokesperson Todd Womach. "Not in intent, practice, policy, or product offerings." Womach says Provident cannot comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

Bank of America was not available for comment.

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