Many individuals have suffered discrimination at the hands of insurers, but some have found providers that have built rounded, honest profiles.
As I gathered my accounts and crossed my fingers for approval, I didn’t expect to be discussing suicide with the mortgage advisor I was about to meet. Yet, 30 minutes into the meeting in his cramped and airless office, I found myself recalling the darkest moments of my existence.
"An insurance underwriter, accessing the bare bones information, won’t read about a patient thriving, or enjoying their job or taking positive steps for their own well-being. However, there are firms out there run by the likes of Guise and Deen which are dedicated to helping people access fair terms."
While the advisor was waiting on an answer from the bank’s online chat system, he offered to check what sort of rate we’d get for life insurance. My boyfriend and I had been meaning to do it ourselves so said yes and I - apparently naively – didn’t expect there to be any problems. We’re both young, fit and healthy after all. But the initially innocuous questions quickly revealed that my history of depression and anxiety was problematic.
Blindsided after unexpectedly having to discuss the most traumatic facets of my depression with a total stranger, I digested the response. I was declined. My boyfriend wasn’t. My cheeks were alight with a fusion of rage and embarrassment and it took all of my willpower not to run from the room.
I felt singled out. But it seems my experience is far from unique. Searching for validation and, perhaps, confirmation that I hadn’t over thought my experience, I found countless stories of people who’ve been declined, particularly those with notes of suicidal ideation or self harm on their records, however distant.
So prevalent is the issue, that mental health charity Mind has a guide dedicated to it. A line within it advises, "An insurance provider might refuse to sell you life insurance on the basis of your mental health problem, or ask you to pay higher premiums, but to do this they must be able to show objectively that your condition increases the risk of you dying."
But how could a few ticked boxes possibly prove that? And what are the implications if people know they’re likely to be discriminated against?
Dominic Guise, co-founder and director of Cipher Risk suggests that “quite often people will try and avoid [answering difficult questions] or they’re not quite sure how to answer them. It ends up with a problem of non-disclosure and then the insurers don’t pay out.”
And further to people not disclosing the most private of details to insurers, knowing they may be denied essential services may well lead people to hold out on seeking medical help for fear of the impact their medical records will have.
"Doctor’s reports will usually refer to any medication that’s been prescribed, and usually the reasoning is very thin on the ground," Guise says. "They’ll simply say ‘he suffered from stress, depression and anxiety three years ago and was prescribed Prozac’ for example."
The issue here, as Guise asserts, is that medical records are, by default, bound to the facts. An insurance underwriter, accessing the bare bones information, won’t read about a patient thriving, or enjoying their job or taking positive steps for their own well-being. They’ll see hospital visits, diagnoses and prescribed medications. They’re given only the most myopic assessment of a patient’s life.
What to do?
Perhaps, then, at least for those who have recovered, the answer is to seek to alter those medical records so they cannot be used to discriminate? Unfortunately, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.
Updated in May 2018, the British Medical Association guidelines on access to health records recommend that, "Health records must be clear, accurate, factual, legible and should be contemporaneous. They must include all relevant clinical findings, the decisions made, information given to patients, and drugs or treatment prescribed... Health records should not be altered or tampered with, other than to remove or correct inaccurate or misleading information. Any such amendments must be made in a way that makes it clear what has been altered, who made the alteration and when it took place."
So, if your records correctly state that you suffered a period of depression five years ago, that information will remain. Should an underwriter see that, they may deem it a risk and add a ‘loading’; an additional cost added onto the standard premium to account for the added risk. Added in percentage terms (you may pay an extra 75%, for example), it’s applied according to the severity of the risk.
It’s a troubling reality and one that pushes many away from seeking insurance at all. However, it’s not a dead end. Vanessa Deen, protection advisor at Deen Financial Services, reassured me that if you have suffered from depression or even currently suffer from depression, "there are insurances still available to you. There are several life [insurance] providers who cover mental health. We understand that mental health [problems are] something that has increased over the past few years quite drastically."
Where to start? The first step is talking. While Guise acknowledges that there’s no protocol around insurers and underwriters asking about particularly triggering issues with a client, there are options available. One of which is communicating through an advocate. "Anyone that is a professional that has dealt with the case" can assist in the process, Guise tells me. "A GP or a counsellor is quite often very helpful in putting together a letter or a conversation. I’ve spoken to a number of counsellors before where the client hasn’t felt comfortable relaying that information to me."
Building upon that advice, choose working with a broker over relying upon faceless online forms. Speaking directly to someone, whether with the help of an advocate or not, allows insurers to build a clearer, more accurate picture of your situation.
While many people have suffered discrimination at the hands of insurers, there are firms out there run by the likes of Guise and Deen, which are dedicated to helping people access fair terms by working closely with a client to build a rounded, honest profile.
Benefits of seeking cover
With the UK underinsured by around £100,000 per household, it’s wise to seek cover, not only to account for unforeseen circumstances but also because of the benefits it can bring. "Some providers offer second medical opinions, counselling help, or GP services which are placed within their policy at no extra cost", says Deen*.
Yes, a history of mental illness can put up obstacles to accessing life insurance and yes, the process can be difficult. But there are systems and, importantly, people out there offering help, support and advice.
* This should not be construed as specific advice. For further advice, please contact Vanessa Deen of Deen Financial Services.