In the four-and-a-half years I have worked for National Underwriter, LifeHealthPro and PropertyCasualty360, I have had the opportunity to produce some stories of which I am very proud. Writing for these brands, and most importantly, serving this audience, has been a special honor and privilege, and I am glad to have been afforded this most wonderful opportunity, not just by those for whom I worked with at Summit Professional Networks, but by you, the readers. You are a demanding, delightful and dynamic audience, and always trying to make sure I do right by you has been an extraordinarily edifying experience.
Alas, the time has come for me to move on, though I suspect that I will continue to write about the insurance industry, mainly because I find the business of insurance to be endlessly fascinating, and I find this industry’s professionals to be some of the most compelling sources any writer could ask for. Insurance has given me the opportunity to write about heroes and villains, and about every kind of class of risk from ostrich farming to commercial space flight. What’s not to love about it?
As I like to say, insurance is a huge industry, but a small world, and it is my deep hope that as I continue my own travels, I will continue to cross paths with you all out there, whether it’s at industry conferences, on the pages of publications, through social media, or wherever else. I have never regretted making contact with one of my readers, and I hope you have felt the same. If you haven’t already, please feel free to follow me or send me an invite on your favorite social media platform – I can be found at the following links on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+.
In the meantime, I’d like to leave with you a bakers dozen of my favorite stories I wrote for National Underwriter. These are all stories of which I am particularly proud, either because they represented something I like most about my craft, or they garnered a strong response from the audience, or they won awards, or they made a bona fide difference out in the world, or some combination thereof. But in all of them, I am proud because they also held true to the words of National Underwriter’s founder, E.J. Wohlgemuth, whose words hung in my office when I first arrived there:
“…where the interests of the insurance business and the public which it serves, after making every possible effort to harmonize those interests, conflict, The National Underwriter believes that the best interests in the insurance business are served by taking the stand of the public. In the final analysis, the insurance business can only be successful if it is conducted on the basis of the truest and best service of which it is capable to its clients and the public. This, I take it, is a fundamental principle and the one which has kept the National Underwriter from being a mere paid organ of special interests. Its policies are based on the broad foundation of good citizenship and the recognition that insurance, as well as all other business, exists primarily not for the men who are engaged in it, but for the people whom they serve.”
Words to live by.
And now, onto the stories…
When Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, and President Obama signed it, it caused utterly seismic changes to the business of health insurance. No one felt this more than health insurance agents, whose very model of business was specifically targeted by Obamacare. Carriers secretly loved the law, since it mandated some 36 million people to buy their products, and since the product they were buying were structured and priced such that yes, people had coverage, but it wasn’t the kind of coverage that was going to break the back of most insurers.
Still, Obamacare was a radioactive topic for most of my time here. Many of our readers felt that unless we were actively demonizing the law, we were supporting it, and that was not so. We always tried to be neutral about the law, since there was already plenty of opinion to go around as to the law’s benefits and flaws.
One exception, though, was this editorial of mine, in which a provision of Obamacare made it much more easy for a dear friend of mine to get a certain kind of cancer testing that she otherwise would not have been able to afford. That cancer testing very likely saved her life, even though it left her with scars. But some things are more beautiful for having been broken.
You can read “Kintsukuroi” here.
#12. GOOOOOOOOAAALL!! 10 things the World Cup revealed about insurance
Years ago, I decided that when I wrote columns, I would not go out of my way to antagonize my readership. Their business is stressful enough without some writer slinging barbs and arrows their way. Instead, I decided that I would simply express in writing what I love most about insurance: that in some way, shape or form, it manages to touch every aspect of life. The converse of this, then, is that you can pretty much write about whatever you want, and if you study insurance enough, and respect it enough, you can see invisible lines that connect whatever you’re covering back to insurance, and more specifically, the issues of importance to your audience. That’s the trick, you know. It’s not about writing about that which entertains you. It’s about writing that which matters to your audience. Everything else is ancillary. The audience must reign supreme, always.
Which is why I so enjoyed this particular piece. I wrote it during this year’s World Cup tournament, which I absolutely, positively, unabashedly adore. I follow Arsenal in the English Premier League, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the enthusiasm with which I follow the World Cup. To me, it is a purer competition than the Olympics, and it’s scaled to a level where one person can conceivably watch the entire thing. And, it gives me another reason to don the red, white and blue and scream “AMERICAAAA!” at the top of my lungs, which is never a bad thing.
For those reasons and more, I really enjoyed this particular piece, in which I took what I loved most about the World Cup and tied it to those things that I saw dominating the world of insurance at that moment. I always enjoyed doing this, but in this piece, I enjoyed doing it most of all.
You can read “GOOOOOOOOAAALL!! 10 things the World Cup revealed about insurance” here.
#11. Live with your kids and work till you die
One of the things that interests me most about life insurance is how it is a product that is sold, not bought. This is very much unlike property and casualty insurance, which sometimes you are required by law or by commercial contract to buy. And even when you are not required to buy P&C coverage, you typically cannot conduct your business without it. But life insurance is different. People often think they can do without life insurance, because they don’t admit that they could die at any time. Or, they think they have enough life insurance when they really do not.
Likewise, people walk around critically underfunded when it comes to their retirement plans. Most folks simply do not have enough saved to retire to a lifestyle with which they are already accustomed, and this all adds up to a very unpleasant surprise awaiting entire generations of Americans who worked hard for decades only to find out, too late, that they did not save enough along the way.
These two challenges loom large in life/retirement marketing, as well they should. But along the way, it seems that sometimes the life industry forgets that its products are still ultimately about mortality protection first and foremost, and that perhaps the modern notion of retirement simply isn’t all that applicable any longer to today’s economic realities. Maybe instead of complaining about being unable to sell more to the middle market, the industry should examine what it is trying to sell in the first place, based on the needs it tells itself its customers have.
I thought I would get a lot of flak from the audience when I first wrote this editorial. The deluge of letters I got applauding its conclusions were a most welcome and pleasant surprise, indeed. It told me that perhaps life insurance carriers and their producers might not be seeing things entirely eye to eye, and that a lot of those producers still look at their business and their clients with the same old-school values upon which this business was built.
You can read “Live with your kids and work till you die” here.
#10. Negroes I’ve Met While Yachting
There is a saying that everybody in America likes to talk about race, but nobody likes to talk to each other about it. I think that is true. More true than we care to admit. As chief editor for National Underwriter and Summit’s other Life/Health publications, I oversaw a few different editorial efforts to examine the multicultural efforts of the industry itself. Was this industry still just a collection of aging white gentlemen, or had it become something more reflective of modern society?
As it turned out, plenty of carriers took multiculturalism seriously, including some that even had initiatives in place that called for their own distribution system to mirror the same racial demographics as the country at large. If that’s not taking the problem seriously, I don’t know what is. I also got to speak with producers of various racial and ethnic backgrounds who were quick to tell me that the reason why they loved life insurance sales so much was because it is was limited only by their own work ethic. They could write their own success story however they want.
And yet, one couldn’t overlook that racial minorities seemed to have far lower insurance penetration stats than other groups, and it made me wonder why that was. The funny thing about institutionalized racism is that even when it goes away, the after-effects linger on, often in ways that are invisible to those who never had anything to do with it in the first place.
I based this column off of an awful joke I heard while I was in college, as a way to break the ice that racism is real and we need to discuss it frankly. This article generated no small amount of lively discussion, including many private comments, some of which were from college friends who witnessed the joke in question, and who remembered it, as well. It’s funny what we remember over time.
You can read “Negroes I’ve met while yachting” here.
#9. Rogue’s Gallery
I love telling the industry’s hero stories, because there really is an inherent nobility in any kind of business that provides people with the kind of second chances that rebuild careers, lives and families. By that same token, I cannot abide how easily villainzed insurance is. It is a complicated business selling complicated products,and the nature of the transaction often leaves consumers feeling unhappy, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with their coverage. A claimant has suffered a loss…what is to be happy about that?
And so, we so often see the ignorant and the opportunistic try to score cheap points by telling villainous stories about the insurance industry, and the unfairness of that really grinds my gears. The reason why these villain stories work is because like any business, there are bad seeds within insurance, and those few bad seeds manage to cast an air of suspicion over the legions of hard-working, honest professionals who make insurance work.
This is unlikely to change any time soon. But there are villain stories worth telling, and I thought it would be interesting to take this and turn it into something our audience might especially enjoy: the annual Rogue’s Gallery, which points out those people or things that make our audience’s professional lives more difficult than they really ought to be. Some of these choices were controversial, especially those with a political element to them. But all of them were influential, and this became an annual tradition that I hope never goes away. Assembling the list is too much fun.
You can read the 2011 Rogue’s Gallery here. Top Rogue: Verus Financial, LLC
You can read the 2012 Rogue’s Gallery here. Top Rogue: The Romney/Ryan Presidential campaign
You can read the 2013 Rogue’s Gallery here. Top Rogue: Healthcare.gov
#8. Stars and Stripes Forever
I was invited to tour USAA’s corporate headquarters in San Antonio, Texas for a few days, to speak with a broad array of its professionals and to see what makes this financial services company truly unique. If you don’t know much about USAA, all you need to know is this: it serves the families of those who served in the military, it is a diversified financial services company that offers banking, insurance, retirement planning and more; and it is somewhere between a mutual insurance company and a not-for-profit service agency in terms of how it conducts its business. USAA is, simply put, one of the most interesting and unique insurance companies I have ever covered, and it was a real pleasure to spend time with these folks, hear their stories, and in turn, tell it to the rest of our audience.
I wish I had more opportunities to do this kind of writing. Some of my colleagues jokingly chided me for writing what they considered to be a “love letter” to USAA, but to be honest, I would gladly have written more of these if more carriers had granted me the access to do so. Often, the media is seen with suspicion by insurers, and I understand why. All I can say is that sometimes, it’s worthwhile telling a success story or two, and calling out the best of the companies you cover in terms that demand admiration. Sometimes, it’s better to write about the solution than the problem. And that’s what I tried to do here.
When my visit concluded, I was given a special military coin by USAA’s president, which symbolized all five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. The coin tradition was one I did not know about until I received my coin, but once I understood the importance of the gift, the coin became one of my most treasured possessions. It sits on my writing desk, next to my Neal Award medallion. And I shall never get rid of it.
To all who serve in uniform, thank you. Because people like you serve, the rest of us do not have to, and that is a very important thing to remember. If we take that for granted, we have lost a sense of perspective we cannot afford to live without.
You can read “Stars and Stripes Forever” here.
#7. Voices of PPACA
As the Supreme Court began to hear the biggest challenge to the Constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, managing editor Corey Dahl and I spent a few days at the steps of the Supreme Court to interview people who had come to shout at each other. The scene there was a little crazy, with people demonstrating in favor of the law, people demonstrating against it, and very few who seemed to understand what the law actually was authorized to do. It was an illuminating, if depressing, display of our democracy in action.
We ran a bunch of photo slideshows of the event, as well as a fair number of interviews, but I was always fond of the video I managed to capture. The nice thing about being amid a bunch of political protestors is that everyone is willing to talk. I was especially grateful to find two people who actually sold health insurance and who were willing to talk about their thoughts on the law. They both supported it — one because she felt that what it did for her as a woman outweighed any professional impact it had, and another who had sufficiently diversified his business so that whatever PPACA did to his health insurance sales, he would survive.
I could write a million words about PPACA, but I’ll just leave it at this: the law is an unholy mess, and surely lawmakers could have done better in writing it, and in addressing the cost of health care itself, rather than the means by which we pay for it. That said, it would have been even better if the insurance industry had managed to address policyholder concerns proactively rather than let things get to the point where the public asked the government to step in. Whenever that happens, the worst possible result has a way of becoming the most likely one.
#6. Ending it all: Can life insurers help stop suicide?
I lost my brother Tom to suicide in 2009, and it was, as you might imagine, a major life event. Three other stories in this list involve my writing about suicide, but this is the one that most directly involves how and why the issue of suicide should register on the radar of life insurance companies as a business concern. Will life insurers ever take meaningful action to help bolster suicide prevention in this country? I sure hope so. Life insurance does so much good for so many. It would be terrific if we saw it spread its helpful influence to this realm, also.
In this story, I got access to speak with Federal Insurance Office head Michael McRaith, who had been prevented from speaking publicly because the FIO Insurance report had not been released. For almost two years, poor Commissioner McRaith was held in a kind of communications limbo, positioned to speak meaningfully on the future trajectory of insurance regulation, but unable to do so. What a wasted opportunity. McRaith is a suprelemy intelligent, articulate and thoughtful man; the more he can talk about the future of insurance, the better.
But McRaith had also lost a loved one to suicide, and he is a passionate suicide awareness advocate. To that end, he spoke with me about his own personal loss, and about how life insurers might consider joining the fight against those forces that drive so many to take their own lives every year.
You can read “Ending it all: Can life insurers help stop sucide?” here. Even better, you can contact the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention here. They are always looking for volunteers and donations.
#5. In Passing
I was always a fan of the Economist’s obituary page, and I decided to write obituaries of my own, to underscore the fundamental needs that life insurance addresses, and to draw attention that in every life, there is a special story worth telling. A few times, I wrote obituaries of people who were less than admirable, and I got some angry letters from readers who thought I was trying to whitewash certain individuals. I wasn’t. I just thought that once somebody is gone, it’s always worthwhile to see what lessons their life offers for the rest of us. Nobody passes without leaving a trace of themselves in the world they once inhabited. We should never overlook that.
I wrote a number of obituaries, and for a while, this was my favorite thing I wrote on a regular basis. I stopped writing it because typically, my columns were about famous people, and I worried that by only covering them, I was sending the message that only famous people mattered. Everyone matters. Everyone.
Of the numerous installments of In Passing, there are four that are particular favorites of mine.
Don Ritchie (1926-2012) is the story of an Australian life insurance agent who saved many people by talking them out of committing suicide. Not all angels wear wings.
Bullied to Death is the story of young A.J. Betts, who was bullied into suicide because of his racial makeup and his sexual orientation. He was the son of my dear friend — and a member of our audience — Sheryl J. Moore. There is only one thing I truly hate in this world, and it is bullying.
Richard Niles (1953-2013) was a co-worker of mine who died suddenly, and when he was gone, I realized I hardly knew him at all, even though I worked only a few offices away from him. After that, I resolved to get to know my co-workers a whole lot better. We all should. We spend half our lives with them, after all. No need to do it as strangers.
Farewell, Mr. Unger is the story of my son’s 4th grade teacher, who passed away the summer after my son completed 4th grade. My son adored Mr. Unger, and it just tore him up to know that his teacher was gone. No kid should have to go through that. Nearly every kid does.
#4. Finding Meester
For as many times as I wrote about my brother’s suicide, there was one story I had never told, until the five-year anniversary of his death came, and I felt I was finally strong enough to tell it. He and I used to play the computer game World of Warcraft together, and “Finding Meester” is the story of how, after my brother died, I became obsessed with locating his character within the computer game because I had nothing else left by which to remember him.
“Finding Meester isn’t just about my brother’s death, and my efforts to cope with it. It is about death itself, and about why something as simple as life insurance serves a much more powerful need than finances. It is a reminder that the ones we lost really did love us, and it is a reminder when we most need it, too. Life insurance does that. So very little else does. And that is one of the big reasons why I respect this industry, and its professionals, as much as I do. Yours is important work. Important, and good.
This article spurred an overwhelming outpouring from audience members who had also lost a loved one to suicide. One of the worst things about suicide is that there is a taboo about it that discourages us from ever talking frankly about those who take their own lives. That worsens the pain we all feel when someone commits suicide, and it encourages us to thrust the suicidal into some weird realm of moral villainy, when the truth is that those who take their lives only do so because they feel so desperate to escape a certain kind of pain that they know of no other solution. That does not require our judgement. It requires our love, patience, and most of all, our willingness to understand to reach out.
#3. The Complete ELNY Saga
This story is near and dear to my heart for a bunch of reasons. First, it was brought to me by attorney Eddie Stone, who has spent no small amount of time and energy jousting at the New York Liquidation Bureau for how it has massively botched the receivership and liquidation of the Executive Life Insurance Company of New York, a company which probably should have never even gone into receivership in the first place. Stone had tried to tell his story to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but their editors couldn’t follow it. I knew right away we had a huge story here, though, and we mobilized our entire editorial team to go after the biggest investigative journalism project in National Underwriter’s long and storied history.
What resulted was an unmatched examination of the ELNY liquidation and more importantly, how corrupt the officials involved were, and how many innocent families were needlessly victimized by the whole thing. This was one of those cases where we got to write a powerful, important story about something that truly mattered to the public, to the policyholder and to the insured. The State of New York will never take responsibility for what it did here, but we should never let them off the hook for it.
I am also proud of this story because we finished producing it right as Superstorm Sandy was making landfall. I was in my living room, phoning in edits from the Jersey Shore, as the lights went out for a week, and our entire edit team on the East Coast was plunged into darkness. Thankfully, I had a Denver team warmed up and ready to go, and they took the project to the finish line for us. We won a ton of awards for The Complete ELNY Saga, and to my colleagues who worked on it with me, I will remain forever grateful for their very hard work in making this thing a reality. It would have been so easy to not tell this story. But that is what the best journalism is all about — telling stories that are important but for whatever reason go untold.
You can read “The Complete ELNY Saga” here.
#2. The Darkness Within
After the Newtown massacre, there was yet another national discussion about gun control, and frankly, it was one I was not particularly interested in joining. Mass shootings, and particularly school shootings, are wrenching events that get our society in an uproar, and yet, we seem to be okay with the tens of thousands of other people who die in ones and twos from gun violence the other 364 days of the year. I don’t get it.
But after Newtown, there was another discussion, albeit a much shorter one. This one was on mental health, since the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, was clearly mentally ill, and had he gotten the full range of treatment he needed, perhaps a tragedy could have been avoided.
This made me wonder just how committed health insurance companies were to including mental health services in their policies. The short answer: not much at all. To prove the point, we dove deeply into Healthcare.gov to run a hypothetical policyholder through each of the 50 states to see what the range of coverage options were. What we learned was not encouraging, to say the very least.
We won a bunch of awards for this story as well, but given the number of shootings we have seen since Newtown, and given how little the mechanics of health insurance have changed for treating mental illness, it seems clear that there is still much more work to be done here, both to help the sick and to fine-tune policies so they can be more useful and more commercially sound. I just hope it won’t take another massacre of children to get things going here, though I fear that only such a travesty will spur decision-makers to action.
You can read the entire “Darkness Within” series here. It displays in reverse chronological order, so start from the bottom and work your way to the top.
#1. Tragic Tale
I grew up reading comic books, and I wondered what had become of Bill Mantlo, a writer I admired. As it turned out, he was nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver, and spent the next 20 years ping-ponging through the cracks of the health care system. He is one of the ones our system has failed, and so I wrote an in-depth profile of Bill, his medical condition, and how his health insurance dropped him into a deep, dark crevasse. The story went viral, especially among the comic book community, and it won a bunch of awards, and kickstarted a bunch of fund-raising efforts to help underwrite Bill’s very costly care.
One of the awards we won for this one came with a cash prize, which I donated to Bill’s care. I’m really proud of that. This was a story that actually did some good for somebody who needed it. I’m so grateful I could do that for him.
This story also helped to build awareness of Bill’s overall condition, which is not good. If you saw the Guardians of the Galaxy movie this summer, you’ll note that the character of Rocket Raccoon (pictured above) was co-invented by Bill Mantlo. As the hype for the movie built up, fans kept linking back to this story to raise awareness for Mantlo himself. Eventually, Marvel made a sizeable donation to his care, and even gave Bill a private screening of Guardians of the Galaxy. I would like to think that in some small way, I helped to make that happen. Even if I didn’t, I’m still Bill got the love he deserved for his work.
But the best part about this story, the part I will never stop smiling over, is that in the course of it, I helped to reunite Bill and his stepson Adam. This case really tore the Mantlo family apart. For that day I visited Bill, part of his family came back together again. I hope one day all of the Mantlos come back together again. But even if they don’t, I will never forget the look on Bill Mantlo’s face when he saw that his son, whom he had not seen for 17 years, was in the room. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a moment like that again in my career. But that’s okay. That one moment could have been enough for anyone.
Thanks for reading, everyone. It has been a blast. Be well. Do good. And stay close.