Q&A: Rising insurance premiums

Dear Liz: I’m an insurance agent specializing in long-term-care policies and just read your advice to the woman who was upset about how much her premiums had risen. Her premiums were $2,400 annually starting when she was 55 but are $4,470 now that she’s 77. First, thank you for noting that these premium increases are because insurance companies didn’t expect people to live so long and nursing home rates to increase so much. Please also tell your reader that, at her age, her premium for the coverage she has now would be well over $12,000! She bought early and she’s definitely getting a ridiculously low premium for the coverage she has. I’m sorry that she’s on a fixed income, but ask her how she’ll pay for a $60,000-per-year stay in a nursing home. If she can’t afford her premium, she should reduce her amount of time covered, not the amount of dollars covered.

Answer: Let’s be clear about who’s at fault here. It’s not the people who bought long-term-care insurance policies and expected them to remain affordable.

Insurers are supposed to be experts at predicting risk, but they made incorrect assumptions about how many people would drop their policies (known as the lapse rate), how many would file claims and how long those claims would last. Insurers also overestimated the returns they could get on their bond investments, which also help determine premiums.

All these stumbles have led to repeated premium increases that have threatened to make coverage unaffordable right when people need their coverage the most.

This woman is well aware of the high costs of long-term care; that’s why she bought the policy in the first place and kept paying it all these years. Her premium might seem “ridiculously low” to you, but anyone with an ounce of empathy could understand that $4,470 is a huge chunk of change for most seniors.

Keeping her coverage means giving up some of the benefits she was promised and had been counting on. Reducing the number of years the policy protects her, for example, could make her premium more affordable but leave her exposed to devastating costs if she needs many years of care.

This is a crappy situation for people who were trying to do the right thing. They don’t deserve to be sneered at for being upset about it.

Q&A: If long-term care insurance costs too much, you have a choice to make

Dear Liz: We were told to buy long-term care insurance early because waiting too long would make it more expensive and perhaps unavailable. I bought mine when I was 55. At the time, it was $2,400 a year. Unfortunately, the premiums just kept going up. I am now 77, and the premium this year was $4,470. The letter informing me of this increase said that next year it will go up 6% to $4,738, and 6% again the following year to $5,022. It’s very clear to me that buying the insurance early was definitely not an advantage. The insurer will obviously keep raising the premium at will. Since I am, like most people my age, on a fixed income, the time will come when I simply cannot afford these premiums. I will then lose the insurance plus all I have paid into it all these years. People should be told that the premiums will continue to rise, and that the time may come when the cost is beyond what anyone on a fixed income can afford.

Answer: Many people are in the same unfortunate situation. They purchased policies because they thought it was the prudent thing to do, only to face the possibility of losing coverage as premiums continued to rise.

Companies that offered long-term care insurance starting in the 1980s and 1990s discovered they didn’t price the coverage accurately. Far fewer people dropped their policies than expected, while the costs of long-term care increased more than anticipated. Many insurers stopped offering the coverage, and massive premium increases were the norm for a while.

Insurers can’t raise premiums “at will,” by the way. The increases must be approved by regulators, who weigh the effects on customers against the possibility an insurer might go under and be unable to pay anyone.

The companies still selling long-term care coverage now offer less generous policies that probably won’t require huge premium increases. Still, many financial planners advise their clients who are buying coverage now to expect their premiums to increase 50% to 100% over their lifetimes.

It’s important to keep in mind that insurance is not like an investment or a savings account. You don’t buy homeowners insurance hoping your house will burn down someday so that you can get your money back. You buy it to protect your finances against catastrophic loss. So it’s not as if you received nothing in return for your long-term care premiums: You were protected against a potentially catastrophic cost that — fortunately — didn’t happen.

That doesn’t mean you were wrong to expect your premiums to remain affordable. Given your current reality, though, you’ll need to decide if you want to risk dropping coverage entirely or if reducing coverage might be an option. Many people in your situation have opted for longer waiting periods, lower inflation adjustments or a reduced benefit period to keep premiums affordable.

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