Will a health condition kill your life insurance options?

By Susan Ladika Posted : 07/07/2011

Health condition life insuranceIf you have a pre-existing medical condition, you might assume it's virtually impossible to get life insurance. But in many cases, you can still find coverage, even if you've been treated for heart disease or some types of cancer.

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"It's a mistake people make, thinking they can't get life insurance. They may not be able to get it at the ultra-preferred rate, but only 10 percent of applicants get ultra-preferred rates," says Jack Dewald, past chairman of the LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit designed to help consumers with life and health insurance issues.

Your ability to obtain insurance depends on your medical condition, and how well it's controlled.

Control your condition – and life insurance options

Some health problems are likely to preclude you from getting any type of life insurance coverage. They include certain cancers that have metastasized and indicate a short life expectancy, cocaine use and severe alcoholism, says Ray Dinstel, senior vice president for life and long-term care insurance underwriting at Genworth Financial.

"The impairment is so drastic" in such cases that the likelihood of survival is "immensely shortened," he says.

Other conditions that life insurance companies may put under the microscope include:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol

But simply being diagnosed with these conditions – or having been treated for them – doesn't mean getting life insurance is out of the question, especially if the condition is well-controlled.

People shouldn't "disqualify themselves automatically," says Dr. Robert Pokorski, chief medical strategist in the underwriting department of The Hartford.

As of 2007, the United States had 11.7 million cancer survivors, according to a recent Journal of the American Medical Association article.

"Many of those people are very insurable," Pokorski says.

For example, depending on the insurer, a woman whose breast cancer was caught at an early stage might be eligible for life insurance six months after completing treatment, he says. A man with prostate cancer might have a 12-month wait.

Those with other types of cancer might have to wait longer for coverage, or they might pay more, Pokorski says, depending on the type of cancer and its stage when diagnosed.

Other ailments and life insurance

Patience and flexibility also are virtues if you have heart disease or another heart ailment. Someone who recently suffered a heart attack might have to wait for approval because insurers don't know "if they'll take care of themselves or not," Dinstel says.

However, if you've had a heart attack – or other serious health problems – you'll have a much greater chance of getting insurance down the road if you quit smoking, lose weight and start exercising, you'll have a far greater chance of getting insurance down the road, Dewald says.

Meanwhile, Dinstel says conditions such as diabetes, sleep apnea and depression that are well-controlled are "not a terrible risk," and people can get life insurance at reasonable rates.

At Genworth, there's been a move to look at applicants holistically. If you're diabetic but not overweight and you don't have other related medical conditions, you can get better rates, Dinstel says.

"It's really important to look at the whole picture," he says.

If the condition is not controlled, "you start to have problems with insurance," Dinstel says.

A diabetic who doesn't eat right and is overweight may struggle to find coverage, he says.

"It really is up to the applicant in many ways," Dinstel says.

Shop around for insurance

It's important to shop around if you have a health condition that makes getting life insurance a challenge.  Insurers have all developed their own underwriting guidelines, and some are able to offer better rates for applicants with certain medical conditions.

Guaranteed life insurance is another option if you're looking for coverage with no health questions asked and no physicals required. But the amount of coverage offered is usually quite limited, the premium will be very high, and if you die within the first year or two, your loved ones will likely receive only the premiums you've paid and any interest earned, Dewald says.

 "That could be a measure of last resort," says Dewald, who is now president of Agency Services Inc., a life and health insurance agency in Memphis, Tenn.

Instead, he urges consumers to get life insurance when they're young and in good health.

"You can't insure a house once it's on a fire, so don't wait till you're sick to buy your insurance," he says.

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