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6 simple insurance tools for fighting Ebola

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If you sell long-term care insurance (LTCI) or other “non-medical health products,” you are much more than a seller of “ancillary products.”

You are someone with the ability to think about the bad things that can happen and the creativity to identify insurance products that might be able to protect consumers against those risks.

Most people assume that a vacation to the Bahamas will go great. You’re the person who knows that having a little insurance might be a good idea, just in case things don’t go great.

Most people assume that the Ebola fuss will blow over quickly, as just about all of the other crises we will worry about do. You know that, sometimes, the crises do hit, and hit hard, and cause a great deal of soul-searching by the carrier actuaries and underwriters.

And, today, one of the interesting things about the Ebola crisis is that it’s not what it means for major medical plans. On Oct. 16, for example, Josh Ernest, the White House press secretary, took a question at a press briefing about just who was paying to fly a nurse infected with Ebola to a hospital in Atlanta for treatment. Ernest had no idea whether the patient’s health insurance was paying for her extraordinary care, the federal government was paying or if any entity was paying the bill.

All I know is that she is currently being treated at a federal facility,” Ernest said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “In terms of what the consequences are for her medical bills or for insurance coverage, I am not aware of what sort of financial arrangements are in place to cover the costs of the treatment.”

Friends of a freelance journalist who contracted Ebola while covering the epidemic originally announced plans to raise $500,000 to pay his medical bills and other expenses. When they found out his employer was paying his medical bills, they cut their fundraising goal and said they would use the money raised to cover the kinds of expenses that the major medical plans governed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) don’t cover: All of the bills other than medical bills that people who have suffered health care catastrophes often face.

Regulators may not look kindly on marketing materials that emphasize Ebola benefits, and it’s not clear how all policy provisions would work in a severe epidemic of a deadly disease. Most insurers were thinking of an outbreak like the 1968 Hong Kong flu epidemic when they wrote their policy contracts, not the Black Death.

But here’s a look at some of the products insurance professionals could talk about once we get past the Ebola outbreak and consumers who want ideas about how to protect themselves against bad bouts of infectious disease in the future.

A nurse wearing a telephone headset

1. A 24-hour nurse line.

One easy step an insurance professional can take is to make sure a client — any client, for any product — has access to a good nurse line through a major medical plan.

People who are suffering strange symptoms and call a nurse line operated by real, experienced nurses who can answer questions from their own knowledge, not simply read from a database, may have a better chance of knowing when “flu-like symptoms” are very likely ordinary symptoms of mild flu, and when the symptoms are signs of a condition — such as a severe case of the flu — that need medical attention.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been operating its own version of a nurse line for people who may have been exposed to patients with Ebola.

Consider signing up for several stand-alone nurse line services yourself — ideally, nurse line services that pay agents referral fees — and see which ones work best when you yourself have questions.

Recommend the most helpful nurse lines to clients.

Face in laptop computer

2. An employee assistance plan (EAP).

What if there was a real chance that your client had Ebola or even a severe case of the flu?

The client might be afraid. The client might face complicated questions about employer leave policies or how to get started with arranging for home health care services.

One place for the client to start might be an employer’s EAP program. In some cases, health insurers with EAP divisions respond to major disasters by making EAP services available to all insureds in an affected region, or even to all people in an affected region.

Encouraging benefits to offer EAPs, and individual clients to pay for voluntary or contributory EAPs, might be another simple way to harden the clients against many different kinds of catastrophic risk.

Ebola virus

3. Carefully chosen travel medical insurance.

Insurance policies that work well under normal bad circumstances may not necessarily work the same way in catastrophes. Right now, some are saying the travel health policy covering the photojournalist who contracted Ebola in West Africa may include an outbreak exclusion.

But a policy chosen by an insurance professional who knows how to analyze a policy can help protect a client against many minor and major problems that can occur away from home — and may also help fill in strange, vexing gaps in provider access that may occur as major medical insurers cope with PPACA cost-containment pressure by imposing much tougher limits on access to out-of-network providers, even when the enrollees are traveling away from home.


4. Short-term disability insurance.

Some short-term disability (STD) policies, especially for school teachers, may offer formal quarantine benefits

At this point, some are estimating that public health officials have put more than 1,000 U.S. residents in isolation or quarantine as a result of Ebola concerns. The isolation or quarantine period could last for 21 days. No one has said anything about how the people quarantined will pay their bills while they are unable to get to work.


5. Hospital indemnity insurance.

When people with Ebola or another serious infection do need hospital care, they might wish they had a little humble, old-fashioned hospital indemnity insurance — coverage that would pay a flat cash benefit when they enter the hospital, no matter what the cause.

The government may end up filling in many of the gaps in major medical coverage, and it may end up picking up the entire tab of the uninsured, for the sake of keeping Ebola from causing terrible harm to the general public. But that doesn’t mean that government will necessarily pay for access to cable television, WIFI or snacks. 

A man who looks bad

6. Short-term care insurance.

It seems as if people who recover from Ebola — like people who recover from other major infections — may need home health care services or other home care services while they complete their recuperation.

Ebola survivors, in particular, may need nurses who can cope with tough infection control standards.

For those patients, having even a little short-term care (STC) insurance might make the difference between accepting whatever service the government chooses to provide and having some choice over home care providers.