Not so long ago, I heard from a mother and advocate I know who had just found out she was being denied life insurance coverage because she had been treated for postpartum depression in the last five years. She was told their policy stated that she must wait until five years after the experience with PPD was over (it had already been 4 years!), and could then re-apply for life insurance.
What?!! Who came up with that arbitrary bullshit?! You can imagine my shock and dismay. I had never heard of such a thing. But then I reached out to several professionals I respected to ask if they had seen this happen to their patients, and was disappointed to discover that they had. Here were some of their responses:
“This practice applies for survivors of breast cancer as well — even if you have been ‘cured’ for over a decade! Discrimination against women’s issues for sure! Men who have had life-threatening conditions can get [life insurance] but they have to pay more. With women there are also plans that will offer minimal coverage but are still astronomically expensive.”
“Sadly, it is legal and commonplace for life insurance companies to deny coverage based upon a wide range of mental health conditions, including postpartum depression … The life insurance companies justify this based upon their actuarial tables that show people diagnosed with certain mental health diagnoses have shorter life spans. Not sure how significant it is across the board, but apparently significant enough for them to deny taking people’s money for policies.”
“I have heard of people being denied because of a history of depression. It makes no sense, since most policies don’t cover suicide anyway. Interestingly, now we know about connections of depression to other chronic illnesses and heart disease. But since approximately 20% of women get perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, this really wipes out a lot of women. It’s discrimination, especially since the prognosis is so good.”
My first piece of advice for those of you seeking life insurance who have been treated for a perinatal moodor anxiety disorder like postpartum depression is to try shopping around. Different insurance companies have different underwriting policies and you may find one that is willing to insure you, or that perhaps has a shorter waiting period than 5 years.
If that doesn’t work, the website Insure.com suggests working with “… brokers who specialize in finding life insurance for applicants with medical conditions and other red flags. These ‘impaired-risk specialists’ know which insurers are likely to approve applications for folks with a variety of ‘insurability’ problems, such as smokers, the overweight and those with a cardiac history.”
If that doesn’t work, there is another last-ditch option: You could lie.
I know I’m gonna get it for this one.
At first I wasn’t going to write about this option. I teach my children not to lie. I avoid lying, unless it’s about somebody’s new haircut that I think is not so hot. I don’t think lying is a good thing. But what else is a mother to do who is trying to pay for life insurance that will help her family continue on should something happen to her?
While I was equivocating, I happened to read this reponse in the New York Times’ Magazine by Randy Cohen, the paper’s ethicist, to a letter from a mother whose son had been denied health insurance after answering truthfully that he had smoked pot in the past. This is what he wrote:
“In this situation, there is no good advice. Some problems are simply not amenable to an honorable individualist solution, offering a choice only between disheartening alternatives.
Honesty may not always be the best policy — and, by the way, do these pants make me look fat? — but we rely on the trustworthiness of those we do business with. Were your son to lie on that form, he’d do his small part to erode that trust. And yet it’s hard to see how he’d harm the insurance company. Few dire health consequences result from sporadic youthful pot-smoking or even occasional adult pot-smoking. It is impertinent of the insurer to act on information that is medically insignificant.
And so, were I filling out that form, I’d lie without remorse. (All right, with some remorse. Accompanied by resentment. I blame my upbringing. And my inept, albeit imaginary, therapist.) …”
Cohen’s words made me feel slightly more emboldened to share the last-ditch option. I realize, of course, that he was not writing about life insurance, or postpartum depression or people who are taking prescribed antidepressant medication. I imagine he didn’t foresee me using his words here. I imagine he would say, as he did in his column, that it would be better to write letters to the life insurance company and appeal the denial. (Remember those professionals I quoted earlier? They said those appeals often also get denied.) I imagine he’d say you also should write your elected officials and work to get policies like these changed. And I would agree that this is something we all should do.
But I also believe that, if you have had a temporary illness like postpartum depression or anxiety and were treated and have fully recovered and it hasn’t impacted your long-term health, it’s unfair for you to be denied life insurance. And what does five years have to do with it? If your doctor says you are better and completely healthy, why should you be flat-out denied while the next person is accepted? Any of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow, after all. (Fingers crossed the bus thing doesn’t happen to one of you, or I’m gonna feel really bad about writing that.) I realize you may have to pay higher premiums, but at least then you’d have the opportunity to have the insurance.
You didn’t hear this from me, but here’s a tip someone gave me:
If you are applying for life insurance for the first time after having been treated for PPD, you could say you had been taking antidepressant medication for PMS or perimenopause symptoms.
My sources tell me this has worked for some.If you want to take the risk, you could try it. One side note:If you have already applied for life insurance and been denied, you have to note that denial on future applications with other insurance companies, so this probably wouldn’t work. Insurance companies can access medical data about you from other insurance companies via a clearinghouse called the MIB, and would find out you had PPD. As reported by iVillage in an article called “Getting Past Life Insurance Denial,” ” … if the new application asks you if you have been turned down for insurance in the past, you must answer truthfully. Failure to do so is a misrepresentation and could result in null and void coverage in the future. Through the use of the MIB, the new company may be aware of previously discovered medical indicators or adverse determinations and know that your application is not completely accurate.”
I don’t want you to have to lie. I want you to be able to have life insurance, should you need it. And I want people — everyday people, insurance company people, political people –to understand that postpartum depression is a temporary and fully treatable illness.