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Buying life insurance when you have asthma

Asthma is a growing medical problem in the United States, and a growing concern for life insurance companies facing a rise in the number of policyholders with this condition.

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The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports that in 2009, 22 million Americans will be diagnosed with asthma, of which 6 million will be children. Last year, 5,000 people died from asthma.

Genetic predisposition to asthma, combined with air pollution, has led asthma rates to more than double in the last 17 years. Despite the serious nature of asthma, many of those with the condition can buy affordable life insurance.

The severity of your asthma determines how much you will pay for life insurance. A person with severe, persistent asthma is going to pay more for life insurance than someone with a mild, intermittent variety. Just as important is how you respond to treatments.

"By following their physicians' advice, people with asthma can help control their symptoms and the severity of the disease," says Dr. Alison Moy, medical director for Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, a member of Liberty Mutual Group. "Maximizing one's wellness through an asthma action plan can lead to a positive health outcome."

If you have asthma, it pays to shop around and compare rates from several different companies.

The medical community has established goals for asthma treatment, which can help reduce life insurance rates if they are met.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the goals of asthma treatment include:

  • No symptoms or low severity of symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.
  • Sleeping through the night without asthma symptoms.
  • No time off from school or work due to asthma.
  • Full participation in physical activities.
  • No emergency room visits or stays in the hospital due to asthma.
  • Few or no side effects from asthma medicine.

If you apply for life insurance, the insurer will want to know how well you are achieving these goals. Insurers will also want to know your "peak flow meter" readings and the results of pulmonary function tests. The peak flow meter is a simple test that many asthmatics perform at home. The pulmonary function test is more detailed and should be performed by your doctor at least once a year. Both of these tests indicate how well you are breathing, allowing doctors and your insurance company to determine how asthma is affecting you.

In many cases, insurers will use the number and types of medications as an indicator of the severity of your condition.

When medication fails to control asthma properly, it can lead to higher life insurance rates, even if you believe your asthma is having little impact on your lifestyle.

On the other hand, if you stay active in spite of your asthma and you haven't suffered any "exacerbating episodes" for the past one to three years — such as missing work or going to an emergency room because of an asthma flare up — your life insurance application will be viewed more favorably. Dr. Jacki Goldstein, vice president and chief medical officer for MetLife, says that underwriters classify asthma using many criteria.

"We look at how often there have been daytime and nighttime symptoms. Could there have been some point for acute exacerbation of symptoms — like a cold?" Goldstein says. "An emergency room visit may be an indicator that the person is not very compliant with their care. An unscheduled doctor's office visit is very different from going to the ER."

Sample underwriting rules for asthma

If you have asthma, you'll find a variety of rates depending on the insurance company. Below is a sample of rules for applicants in different rate classifications.

American General

Preferred Plus and Preferred: Brief symptoms that occur no more than once per week and do not impact sleep; good response to inhaler; FEV1/PEF (measurements of airflow) of greater than or equal to 80 percent; no time lost at work.

Preferred Tobacco: Asthma will rule you out of this class if you are a smoker.

Standard: Asthmatics considered.

Prudential

Preferred Best and Preferred: Asthmatics not considered.

Standard: Moderate to severe asthma not considered.

 

 

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly all asthma patients can become free of symptoms with proper treatment. There are new medications that can help asthmatics maintain long-term control of their symptoms.

"With the number of treatments there are now for asthma, if you follow the rules of your doctor's treatment guidelines, it's hard not to be successful in getting asthma under control," says Goldstein.

An asthmatic with a track record of very good control can have a near normal life expectancy. If it has been more than two or three years since your asthma caused an unscheduled doctor visit, and it hasn't caused you to miss work, you shouldn't have trouble getting your life insurance issued with "standard" or even "preferred" rates.

In general, the more severe your last serious episode of asthma was, the longer you will have to wait before you can get the best-priced life insurance. If you went to the emergency room after an asthma attack, you will need to show a longer history of meeting your goals — perhaps as long as five to seven years depending on the circumstances and severity.

Frequent, less severe and recent asthma episodes can also cause problems in applying for life insurance. Those symptoms might suggest you are failing to follow your medication regimen or might need to change your treatment.

If you are a smoker with asthma, life insurance can be very expensive. Insurers will charge significantly higher smoker rates in addition to any higher rates linked to your asthma.

But if an asthmatic decides to stop smoking, Goldstein says it would be a year before they would be eligible for a better rating.

Even if you are a healthy nonsmoker with asthma, your insurer will want to see that you have been going to your doctor at least twice a year to have your condition monitored, and you should list all of the medications you are taking on your life insurance application. In many cases, insurers will use the number and types of medications as an indicator of the severity of your condition, but they will be more concerned with how you are responding to your treatment.

If you have recently changed medications, you may want to wait a year before applying for life insurance. That will give you time to establish a history of meeting your goals on the new regimen, which could lead to lower rates for life insurance.

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