The SNEWS View: Honesty might sink chance at cheaper health insurance

A recent attempt to purchase health insurance revealed that insurance providers aren’t keen on covering those who participate in “extreme” sports, with the definition of “extreme” for them not necessarily what we consider so extreme.
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While the recently signed health care bill should fix problems with our insurance system, I wonder if it will change the fact that, when you’re dealing with a health insurance company, honesty can be crippling. A recent experience taught me that if I wanted more affordable insurance, I might have to tell a few fibs. 

I realized this a few weeks ago when I was shopping for cheaper health insurance and Googled my way to the company Humana One. I called the company and was soon talking with Javier, a very friendly guy who assured me that he could set me up with a plan that would save me about $30 a month, compared to my current coverage. I agreed to go ahead and apply, because I wouldn’t have to make any firm commitment on the spot.

Javier proceeded to lead me through 15 minutes of questioning so that the insurance company could rest assured that I was not sick, had never been seriously sick, nor would I likely get sick in the future. He asked me about strange-sounding afflictions, the status of pretty much every vital organ -- including body parts that you really don’t want to discuss with a stranger. Then came the fatal line of questioning. 

“Do you participate in any extreme sports?” Javier asked.

And I froze. I hadn’t expected this. My mind whirled as I wondered exactly what he meant by “extreme” sports. I was thinking base-jumping, sky diving, ultimate fighting, bull riding. You know, stuff on Spike TV.

“Well, I don’t know if I do anything extreme,” I said hesitantly. “I mean, I go climbing every once in a while.

Javier was silent. I could hear him flipping pages. And it quickly dawned on me that insurance company inquisitors are like sharks, and hesitation is like a drop of blood in the water -- they smell it from miles away, and move in for the kill.

Javier then asked, “Do you do any mountain climbing?”

That startled me. When he mentioned extreme sports, I didn’t think that an insurance company would have mountaineering on its radar. It’s not as if tons of people have an ice ax in their closet. And now I was in a tight spot. Should I lie and deny the fact that I had, in fact, climbed a few mountains? No, probably not. Prior to the questioning, I’d pledged that I would answer truthfully or face some awful consequence that Javier had rattled off really quickly -- did he say “litigation” or “death by ravenous wild pigs?” Hey, this was an insurance company. It could have been either.

“Yeah, I’ve done some mountaineering,” I said. Then, hoping to steer him away, I added, “But it’s been a while, and I don’t know if I’ll do it again.”

No luck.

“What is the highest altitude you have been to?” he asked in complete monotone, as if he were reading the line from a script.

Wait a minute. Insurance companies want to know what altitude you’ve been to? The question struck me as so odd that I couldn’t even come up with a lie.

“14,411 feet,” I said. A modest height by my measure. Surely, that was OK. It’s not like I’d climbed K2.

“Hmmm….” Javier didn’t dig my answer.

I knew I had botched it. I should have said that the most extreme thing I do is walk to the mailbox, and I do that in fact very very slowly and, of course, never when it’s raining or cold outside.

Javier put me on hold so that he could consult a supervisor. I listened to Barry Manilow for a few minutes (another cruel cut by the insurance company), and Javier came back on the line and asked if he could call me back. Crap. It was worse than I thought. I just knew they were consulting the official Humana One Chart of Acceptable Altitudes and calculating that I was too big a risk.

Two days later, Javier called me back, and said he had good news and bad news. The good news was that I had been approved. However, there would be a stipulation in my policy. I would not be covered if I were injured while climbing mountains.

“Well, that sucks.”

I actually said that. Out loud. And went on a rant about how it doesn’t make any sense that I would be punished for liking the outdoors, when that’s exactly what makes me a relatively healthy person.

But it didn’t do any good. I just got a few words of sympathy from Javier, who then said I would have 30 days to review the policy that was being emailed to me.

For the next couple of days, I weighed my options. If I took the deal, I might one day trip while on a mountain trail, hit my head on a rock and suffer a massive head injury, and an even more massive hospital bill -- you just know the insurance company would determine that even hiking on a trail in the Smoky Mountains was considered mountain climbing. Or maybe I could just take the offer and live out the rest of my life at low altitudes -- on asphalt where the odds of me being struck by a car or hit over the head by a thug are far greater than me getting an owie in the mountains.

I was thinking I’d screwed up, and determined that the next time I called an insurance company I’d play it right -- I’d lie my pants off. Extreme sports? Oh, no, not me. Never even heard of it.

But, perhaps because of the new healthcare bill, there is hope after all. I just got a call from the insurance company -- the representative said it was stripping out of my policy the stipulation I would not be covered if I climbed mountains. Maybe Humana just decided it was healthier for it to let people like me actually get outdoors once in a while. Might cut down on that whole obesity thing, you know? Either way, truth won out in the end.

Should I tell them I just twisted an ankle stepping off the curb on the way to my mailbox? Nah…think I’ll just keep that risky activity to myself.

--Marcus Woolf

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