Saturday April 13, 2002
Imagine that you've just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. You're terrified about the future, fearing disability, pain and dependence. You worry about the effects on your family and relationships and your ability to do your job.
Five years ago, at the age of 25, I faced these questions, when I was diagnosed with MS. What I didn't anticipate was how serious an impact it would have on my insurability, making it difficult to get basic protection and sending my premiums sky high.
For the estimated 85,000 MS sufferers living in the UK, the financial implications of the condition can be as distressing as the symptoms. It is for this reason that the MS Society has teamed up with broker Heath Lambert to create MS Insurance Services, which aims to provide a range of insurance products for people with MS, their carers and supporters.
"The MS Society has long been aware of how the insurance market can discriminate against people with MS," says Ken Walker, the society's director of marketing. "For years, some parts of the life insurance industry have taken their facts about MS from old and misleading data. It's meant lots of people have been turned down unfairly or offered highly loaded premiums. And with other policies, like travel and contents insurance, there are many things people pay for in surcharges, when some of those can be provided almost as standard. It was time to try to get a better deal for people with MS."
MS is a complex condition which doesn't fit neatly into the actuarial tables used by insurance underwriters. For one thing, there is not just one type of MS. Doctors divide patients into four categories: those with benign MS, relapsing-remitting, secondary progressive, and primary progressive. These categories are fluid; for example, over time relapsing-remitting MS can develop into a progressive form or become benign.
For another, while MS is a chronic, incurable condition, it is not a terminal illness. The majority of sufferers now live a normal life span, with life expectancy reduced by less than six years compared to the general population. MS is also a very individual condition, with every sufferer experiencing different symptoms and severity of symptoms. But insurers base calculations on general risk, meaning that everybody with MS is tarred with the same, worst-case scenario brush: severe disability followed by death.
That's why, when newly diagnosed I first applied for £50,000-worth of term life assurance for a mortgage, I was turned down flat. It was an upsetting and ill-informed message: I was not expected to live for the 25 years of the term. With the help of my neurologist and a wealth of research data, I managed to persuade the underwriter to overturn his decision. But it came at a price: £28.13 per month, or over four times what somebody of my age would normally pay.
Today, aside from a few mild symptoms, I'm healthy, fit and mobile, with a rosy prognosis. Aware that my premiums are ridiculously high, I decided to ring around a few leading insurers to discover if their attitudes to MS have changed in the past five years - and if I could get a better deal.
My first stop was Norwich Union. Although I was told the company was unable to give me a premium estimate over the phone, without first seeing doctors' reports, I was given no indication that having MS would prevent me from obtaining life insurance. In fact, the customer services operator didn't even balk when I told her my health status. I wondered how much this was down to the Disability Discrimination Act. Insurers are no longer allowed to rule anybody out without proper justification.
Direct Line was more helpful. Before revealing I had MS, I was offered a premium of £6 per month. When I came clean, this increased to £10.42 per month - almost £20 less than I'm currently paying, but still 75% higher than my normal life expectancy merits. Again, this was dependent on a completed consent form and letter from my doctor.
Marks & Spencer Financial Services told me a female of my age would pay £7.10 per month. A female with MS, on the other hand, would receive a loading of almost 100%, taking my premium to over £13. This time, I decided to be brave. "There is no evidence that I'm twice as likely to die as somebody else my age," I ventured. "Why do I have to pay twice as much?" The response was shocking. "We have to be fair to everybody," she said. "If somebody has nothing wrong with them they'd be upset if they had to pay the same as you, when you have an illness."
Although it appears that it's now easier for someone with MS to obtain life insurance than five years ago, none of the insurers I spoke to seemed aware that, with mild relapsing-remitting MS, there is almost no more risk of my dying in the next 25 years than the next woman.
Heath Lambert has made it their business to understand the true facts about MS. Following intensive training with the MS Society's med ical advisor, MS Insurance Services is manned by staff with a comprehensive knowledge of the condition, its course and how it can be managed. This knowledge has also been passed on to underwriters.
Robert Constable, executive director of Heath Lambert says its joint venture with the MS Society means insurers will no longer have to rely on out-of-date records and statistics. "Underwriters are now underwriting business which they better understand, on a more flexible basis. We also hope to offer people with MS fairer, more affordable policies which are tailored to their needs, in a more sensitive manner -though we can't, however, promise our policies will cover everyone. In addition, we can generate income for the MS Society by donating a portion of every premium."
Fine words indeed, but could Heath Lambert offer me a fairer deal on my life insurance? When I rang the dedicated telephone line, I was impressed by the service. I was asked detailed questions about my symptoms and relapse rate, in an understanding manner. The guide premium I was offered - of course again subject to medical evidence - was £7.50 per month, for £57,500 worth of cover. This didn't include any loading at all.
Needless to say, I will be filling in the application form and cancelling my old life policy very shortly.
· MS Insurance Services Freephone number: 0800 7833157. The organisation RADAR can also help provide a list of insurance organisations that cater for people with disabilities. Telephone: 020 7250 3222. MS Awareness week runs from April 14-21.
In addition to Financial Services, MS Insurance Services also provides specialist travel, home and motor insurance policies.
Travel insurance: Covers those who have pre-existing medical conditions; provides as standard cover for loss or damage of wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes and crutches; cost of hiring replacement equipment and repatriation back to the UK if replacement equipment is not available; payment for replacement of a carer, should they fall ill or injure themselves and repatriation to the UK if a replacement carer is not available; 24 hour replacement of lost or damaged medication. Single trip or annual cover available.
Home insurance: Offers automatic extensions to include stairlifts, hoists,
special bathing equipment, special IT equipment, special exercise apparatus;
offers £10,000 cover for business equipment for those who work at
home; covers loss or damage to wheelchairs and scooters, both in and away
from the home; covers deterioration of drugs in a refrigerator due to it
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