NEW YORK (AP) — Six New York hospitals have agreed to repay sexual assault victims who were illegally charged as much as $3,000 for rape examinations that should've been billed to the state or their insurers, Attorney General Barbara Underwood said Thursday.

The hospitals — five in New York City and the other in suburban Rockland County — wrongly billed victims for at least 200 forensic rape exams in recent years and had collections agencies go after some women who failed to pay, Underwood said.

"Survivors of sexual assault have already gone through unfathomable trauma," Underwood, a Democrat, said in a statement. "To then subject them to illegal bills and collection calls is unconscionable."

The hospitals have agreed to enact new billing policies to ensure that going forward victims don't get charged. Each hospital will pay a fine of up to $15,000.

The federal Violence Against Women Act prohibits hospitals from charging assault survivors for rape kits. New York law mandates that hospitals instead bill the state's Office of Victim Services unless a victim decides to have the cost covered by insurance.

Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, which billed at least 24 victims for rape exams between January 2016 and November 2017 and sent 19 to collections, said that under its new policy it won't charge the state or insurance companies, either.

"Our patients are our top priority," the hospital said in a statement. "We are committed to providing sexual assault survivors, and everyone who comes to our hospital, high quality care with the sensitivity they deserve."

Under state law, the Office of Victim Services covers the cost of the forensic examiner, facilities, laboratory testing and pharmaceuticals. It doesn't pay for treatment of cuts, broken limbs or counseling.

Underwood said having the Office of Victim Services pick up the tab helps ensure privacy and confidentiality and increases the likelihood that a victim will allow for an examination, which increases the ability of law enforcement to identify offenders.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, commended Underwood for "taking this critical step in ending the unlawful practice of billing rape survivors" for the exams.

"It is of the utmost importance that survivors are given every tool and support possible to come forward, report the crime if that is what they wish to do, and to lower any barriers to reporting," Ossorio said.

The attorney general's office started looking into rape kit billing after it received a complaint that a sex assault victim was billed seven separate times for a forensic rape exam at Brooklyn Hospital Center.

It said it found pervasive failures to advise patients of their payment options and widespread unlawful billing of victims, with bills issued by the six hospitals ranging from approximately $46 to $3,000 each.

A settlement with Brooklyn Hospital reached about a year ago served as a model for the ones announced Thursday. The hospitals covered by those agreements are: Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island and Montefiore Nyack Hospital in Rockland County.

Montefiore Nyack spokeswoman Lauren Malone said the hospital has "worked very closely with the attorney general's office to ensure that proper protocols were implemented to avoid any further occurrences."

"We regret the error and acted immediately to provide reparations to any individual affected," Malone said.


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