Louisiana's mishandling of sexual assault cases has come under scrutiny over the past year as legislators began pulling at a string that has revealed massive holes in the criminal justice system. Pull it a little more — there were backlogs of sexual assault test kits in police custody statewide, including in children's hospitals in New Orleans. Pull the string some more and find that many rape victims, who have gone to hospitals to undergo forensic exams for sexual assault, end up paying for hospital visits and rape tests (and ongoing treatment), creating a cycle of revictimization and trauma.
The federal Violence Against Women Act mandates that government pay the full out-of-pocket costs for sexual assault tests.
"Unfortunately, in the state of Louisiana, we've had victims pay for exams — thousands of dollars in exams," state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said at the Louisiana House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on May 4. "We were in violation of federal law."
Moreno has introduced legislation to create a funding mechanism for the Crime Victims Reparations Board (CVRB) to help pay for those exams. Last year, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued two executive orders to provide short-term relief for the fund after an investigation by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune found victims receiving hospital bills of up to $4,000 following exams and treatment.
Moreno is looking to the gambling industry for a permanent solution. Gov. Bobby Jindal supports her idea.
House Bill 143 calls for players' unclaimed casino winnings — tickets often amounting to a few cents or dollars below the value of the next bet — to be turned over to the CVRB. Casinos and gaming facilities currently hold those winnings. A casino lobbyist recently called them "casino money."
According to a fiscal note attached to Moreno's bill, those winnings could result in $1.5 million added to the victims fund each year. The measure would allow hospitals to bill the board for costs up to $1,000 for tests, health screenings, medication, the cost of an examiner and other charges associated with a sexual assault exam.
"Why don't we go ahead and use this type of money?" Moreno said. "Technically it's players' money. They never cashed it. It seemed like a logical option."
Moreno told Gambit the tickets are "not even a drop in the bucket" in the gaming industry's overall revenue. Moreno says the Louisiana Hospital Association and Churchill Downs (owner of Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans) and Evangeline Downs racetracks in Louisiana support the measure — but the Louisiana Casino Association isn't buying in yet.
Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association, argued against the measure in the House committee May 4.
"Our objection lies with the funding mechanism," he said. "This is casino money. ... When the player redeems the ticket, it is then the player's money."
Duty added that the nearly $500 million in taxes that Louisiana casinos paid in 2014 "could have been put to better use," rather than the Legislature looking to them to fill more funding gaps.
"I banged my head against the wall to find a solution," Moreno told Gambit. "I begged the casino industry for months and they never came up with any. ... We have a $1.6 billion budget crisis, and the one thing you'll notice is the gaming industry is unscathed. ... All we're asking is that we revert it back to the state. ... There's just no other place to cut."
Along with the funding bill, Moreno introduced House Bill 835, which sets statewide standards and procedures "for the examination and treatment of victims of a sexually oriented offense and the subsequent billing for the services rendered as a result of the offense." It removes the requirement that exams be performed in conjunction with police investigations and prevents hospitals from directly billing patients.
"Between those two [bills], we'll improve sexual assault [services] tenfold," she said.
The bills are part of a larger legislative package from Moreno and state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, focusing on sexual assault. Moreno's House Bill 488 addresses several sexual and domestic violence issues, including stalking. HB 488 makes stalking — including sending threatening written messages — a felony. It also expands the definition of domestic abuse to include force and threats of force (including stalking) against another member of a household or a dating partner. The bill also expands penalties for several domestic violence-related crimes, including prohibiting people convicted of battery and stalking from possessing a firearm.
Morrell's sexual assault package this year includes Senate Bill 255, which orders Louisiana's colleges to perform sexual assault climate surveys and report the findings to the Legislature. It aims to standardize how universities handle and investigate sexual assaults on their campuses. Senate Bill 37 updates sexual assault training for the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, and Senate Bill 242 requires statewide criminal justice agencies to submit annual reports on the status of their sexual assault kits. The latter measure follows a January report Morrell had requested that found hundreds of untested rape kits — some more than 10 years old — languishing in the custody of criminal justice agencies and hospitals.
Moreno and Morrell convinced their colleagues to pass several domestic violence-related bills in 2014, and this year's package pushes for stronger protections.
"We needed to," Moreno said. "Our numbers were horrible."
According to the FBI's Unified Crime Reporting data, there were 79,770 rapes reported to law enforcement in the U.S. in 2013. The Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response organization, based in Baton Rouge, served more than 3,000 people last year.
"It was like peeling back an onion, the number of issues that were there," Moreno said. "Everyone had problems."
Moreno says she had to "start looking outside the box" while the state continued to violate federal laws prohibiting victims from paying for their own forensic exams. Turning to the gaming industry to pay for those exams "isn't some new idea," Moreno said. Kentucky and Nevada have similar systems to fund health care or other state services.
"The bottom line is they're a multi-billion-dollar industry, in just this state," Moreno told Gambit. "They generate hundreds of millions of dollars right here in Louisiana because the Legislature allows them particular licenses. ... At the same time, we're in a huge budget crisis."
Duty told Gambit that the measure's cause is compelling, and the association has not decided its next course of action with the bill and whether it will work to help create an amendment to ease some of the burden on casinos. "I don't see how you describe this as anything other than a tax," he said.
Moreno's CVRB funding measures await final passage in the House this month before heading to the Senate.