There are some things we simply cannot say.
The English language is unusually expressive. Its vocabulary is colossal; the champion globally. Its grammatical peculiarities of tense and phoneme, morpheme and lexeme, syntax, context and grammar enable practitioners to articulate thoughts and emotions inexpressible in other tongues. Ain’t it just grand?
This language, my old professor would say, is a glory for those blessed to use it. Be aware, though: there are certain word combos that must never be spoken.
Take, to my mind, the clearest example: ‘I don’t care’. You can’t say this in English without launching a brawl. It has certain parallels that trail to like corollaries: It’s none of my business; that’s your problem; handle it yourself. There are others; people say them all the time, yet it rarely ends well, for reputation or peace of ear, until your interlocutor stops yelling.
The insurance business has its own class of no-no, topped by the words: ‘we’ve denied you coverage’. From our side, it’s merely professional; in other words, just business. For the applicant, pure human, it burns like a scorpion’s sting. We usually get our way on these decisions, unless the regulator speaks up. Our reputations, among wide public opinion, though – well, being correct doesn’t mean getting away with it.
We land now square in the coronavirus crisis. Our enemy looks set to fall from a tiny steel jab – eventually, once the antibody lazy-Susan turns our way. The disease may recede, but its effects shall linger, in broken hearts, damaged nerves and hard-struck industries – like our own – where the costs are gigantic and still counting. What price will our customers, current and future, have to pay down the road?
Reports are now in: Covid survivors are finding applications for life policies stamped red – rejected. Insurers are scared: no one yet knows if surviving the virus makes you stronger, immune, or merely scars the immune system and heaven knows what, marking you actuarially suspect. We hate to say it; it’s bad for business and makes us sound heartless; but some people are too risky to insure.
Ten years ago, I got hit with multiple ‘itises: bronchitis, tonsillitis and something that infects the ear and its neighbors, perhaps even memory. I forget what it was, precisely. I was sick like that dog, took months to heal right and, you know, I’ve never been the same. Simple things in themselves, when marching in combination are like a roundhouse from old Jack Johnson: when you get off the mat, your head keeps on swimming. That’s how it’s been for me: nothing but trouble, persistently, ever since. It may be that way for coronavirus victims, who knows? My thought is indubitable, but I bet some of you think: I shouldn’t have said something so callous.
That is the way insurers think. Yet there is one issue, the soul of the matter: do we know what we’re doing? Insurance agents of my association might say ‘no’, and that’s what drives us to be careful. ‘Wait until sound data is in’. They’ve faced it before, saying the ‘wrong’ thing, taking hard knocks, turning out right or not, depending how them bones do roll. One case stands out alarmingly clear: AIDS.
Those who were there will never forget: the great scourge, in the sunniest days of our lives – the 70s, the early 80s, joyous, though with division. Gay rights were burgeoning, but there were still folk around, dreadfully saying, serves them right. I think AIDS was the tipping point in the battle for tolerance (I don’t like that term; pardon my pulpit, but who am I to ‘tolerate’ you or not?). Our neighbors were in trouble – simple people, terrified, suffering, slowly expiring with no hope. Who in right soul wouldn’t care?
Insurers rather panicked: a no-win situation. There were no therapies yet – nothing reliable, at least. That took time – the labors of Hippocrates’ children: devoted, hard-applied, terrified themselves, pioneers in a pandemic zone. We didn’t know anything, really; news was variable, unclear or bigoted, biased or stupidly wrong. They’re hard to grasp, wily viruses, and that’s what makes them terrorists.
The insurance companies, meanwhile, were looking at hospital charts, bond rates and death rates, just like today. They have to cook up good numbers, maintain a going concern, lest trusting customers are shipwrecked. Cold decisions were made, like now – many quite wrong, but based on available data – incomplete, imprecise. The regulators were not happy; the public didn’t react kindly. But I can’t see them having had many options.
In our current dilemma, I read of a couple: in their 60s, my cohort; I sympathize. Both ladies had coronavirus, avoided hospital, yet were terribly sick. On recovery, they determined to expand their life coverage. Based on their illness and general health history, the insurer denied them the boost. Was this fair? Their story has caused outrage – their rejection unspeakable, some advocates say. Yet I wonder. With my age and health history – I’ve only shared some – similar rejection wouldn’t surprise me at all.
The cost of pandemic to the global insurance industry hasn’t been calculated: the losses are still coming, in hundreds of billions. Bond rates, our bread and butter, are historically low – partly a trend, more broadly to ease pandemic suffering. Insurers want customers, lots of them, but there’s no margin in taking on risky business – not today; not ever. Money doesn’t spout from magic bushes. It must be earned, somehow. Did the insurer really do wrong?
Controversy on the issue sometimes involves wording. The Insurance Compact – the Interstate Insurance Product Regulation Commission, which sets product regulatory standards in 44 states – has ruled that insurers cannot ask applicants whether they have Covid symptoms. Curiously, they can be asked if they’ve tested ‘positive’, along with leading questions that can point to the virus. How you say it, matters.
At all times, insurers have a right to ask our health histories; they have a pressing need to know. Still, this time they’ll want to tread lightly. Wrong steps draw regulatory eyes; calculating hearts gain no sympathy. An old Greek will tell you: ‘How you make your bed is how you are going to sleep’. Insurers may be soon asked to explain their position, and they should be mindful to reply with calm clarity.