Mary Rose Derks was a 65-year-old widow in 1990, when she began preparing for the day she could no longer care for herself. Every month, out of her grocery fund, she scrimped together about $100 for an insurance policy that promised to pay eventually for a room in an assisted living home.
On a May afternoon in 2002, after bouts of hypertension and diabetes had hospitalized her dozens of times, Mrs. Derks reluctantly agreed that it was time. She shed a few tears, watched her family pack her favorite blankets and rode to Beehive Homes, five blocks from her daughter's farm equipment dealership.
At least, Mrs. Derks said at the time, she would not be a financial burden on her family.
But when she filed a claim with her insurer, Conseco, it said she had waited too long. Then it said Beehive Homes was not an approved facility, despite its state license. Eventually, Conseco argued that Mrs. Derks was not sufficiently infirm, despite her early-stage dementia and the 37 pills she takes each day.
After more than four years, Mrs. Derks, now 81, has yet to receive a penny from Conseco, while her family has paid about $70,000. Her daughter has sent Conseco dozens of bulky envelopes and spent hours on the phone. Each time the answer is the same: Denied.
Tens of thousands of elderly Americans have received life-prolonging care as a result of their long-term-care policies. With more than eight million customers, such insurance is one of the many products that companies are pitching to older Americans reaching retirement.
Yet thousands of policyholders say they have received only excuses about why insurers will not pay. Interviews by The New York Times and confidential depositions indicate that some long-term-care insurers have developed procedures that make it difficult — if not impossible — for policyholders to get paid. A review of more than 400 of the thousands of grievances and lawsuits filed in recent years shows elderly policyholders confronting unnecessary delays and overwhelming bureaucracies. In California alone, nearly one in every four long-term-care claims was denied in 2005, according to the state.
"The bottom line is that insurance companies make money when they don't pay claims," said Mary Beth Senkewicz, who resigned last year as a senior executive at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "They'll do anything to avoid paying, because if they wait long enough, they know the policyholders will die."
Profit, profit, profit before all. As long as someone's feeding from the trough, what do we care how many people suffer?
I recently wrote a story about the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights law for people with disabilities. In discussing where the disability rights movement is heading next, one of my interviews said, "Eventually people in the United States will realize that people have a right to health care. And the disability community will be in the forefront of that struggle."
The baby boomers, too, will play a part. Living longer, accustomed to comfort, and possibly a lot less well off than they intended to be, they will swell the ranks of Americans needing long-term care.
Will they fight for it - now, while they can? Will they even recognize this fight - against for-profit health care, for universal insurance - as their own?
New York Times story here.