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Life Health > Life Insurance

Adieu, Part I

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Come the end of April, I will be retiring after 30 years with National Underwriter. (And yes, Virginia, it is a voluntary retirement, thank you.)

So, this will be my penultimate column as NU Life & Health’s Editor-in-Chief and the first of two parts of a farewell to the business I’ve been fortunate to cover for 3 decades. What I thought I’d do is use this column for some reflections about the life and health insurance business in general and then in my last column remember some of the outstanding people it’s been my benefit to meet and be associated with in the course of these 30 years.

Let me start by saying that this has been a fascinating business to cover for a number of reasons. For one, life and health insurance (and here I’m also including disability, ancillary coverages, annuities, etc.) have a visceral importance to people. You can’t get more to the core of what deeply concerns people than dealing with their “life” and their “health,” and by extension, their families, what they love and what they value most.

For another, this is a business that for one reason or another always seems to be under attack and thus in the midst of a struggle. As a journalist I can tell you that this makes for good copy and it makes for interesting stories. Not only do you have to cover the attacks, but also the industry’s defense and, in some cases, its counterattacks.

This situation has only been exacerbated as the shadow of Washington continues to grow over the insurance business.

For another, this is a business riddled with contradictions. Its very basis is solemn promises and high aspirations, but the delivery on those noble ideals can run the gamut from total fulfillment to being very shabby indeed.

Society, information technology, communications–all have changed greatly over the last 30 years. In some cases, the life and health business has kept pace with these changes, but in many other cases the industry has not changed much at all or has lost some ground.

Thirty years ago, for instance, I believe the industry was more successful in reaching the middle class, especially in terms of life insurance coverage, than it is now. (Not that it was so great back then either.) There’s been such a widespread emphasis among companies about reaching the well-to-do with larger policies that little if any progress has been made in increasing the reach of life insurance into the precincts of those who are lower on the economic ladder but still have families to protect.

This is a serious failing that the industry leaves unaddressed at its peril.

There is also a tendency in the business to assume that the provisions of law and the tax code upon which many of its products are built are sacrosanct. Yet what Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away.

This of course is where a lot of that struggle that I referred to above comes in. The further life insurance is taken from its “widows and orphans” base (i.e, as a force for good in society) to one where the product is used to facilitate all kinds of tax avoidance and other estate planning techniques makes for a more attackable industry, in my view.

This is also a contributor to the industry’s being not well understood and as such, prey to forays by one administration after another looking for revenue and seeing in the industry a potential goldmine.

I forget who it was that first said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” (I think it was some French guy.) And while I don’t think he had the life insurance business in mind, he could have. And that’s both good and bad.

I’ll leave you with that thought until next time.

Steve Piontek



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