How many times have each of us said the words: "It won't happen to me?" The truth is, when it comes to our health, none of us is invincible, regardless of age, sex or income. And if you are reliant on health insurance through your employer, this news may come as an even bigger wake-up call than you may think.
I recently read an article in The New York Times by a young woman suffering from cancer. The emotive piece discusses the many truths facing cancer patients today. But I am not just talking about the emotional or the physical demands. I'm talking about the cost.
Suleika Jaouad was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 24. But beyond the dire health implications for her body, her biggest struggle came in the form of health insurance. No longer earning a salary through her job, Suleika relied on her father's health coverage through his employer.
Right now I'd like you to stop and think about your own insurance. Are you covered by your employer in terms of health insurance, critical illness and life cover? What about your partner and children? If you answered "yes" to these questions, the probability is that, since 2008, it is most likely that, no, you are not covered. The all-inclusive benefits that we once took for granted were drastically reduced and changed with employees being none the wiser.
Back to Suleika's story. She begins her account both celebrating and dreading the dawn of her 25th birthday. Law dictates that dependants can remain on their parent's medical aid scheme only until the age of 26. For Suleika, unemployed at the time, this would mean dealing with costly cancer treatments without any financial backing. This excerpt from her account really struck me:
"Up to now, I've been fortunate never to have to choose between groceries, rent and medical care. But even with good health insurance on my parents' plan, the cost of my cancer treatment has been overwhelming. Between co-payments, out-of-network costs, renting an apartment in New York City for my bone marrow transplant and the loss of two incomes (mine and that of my mother, who graciously took on the role of my primary caregiver), the out-of-pocket costs of my care have already amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.
"Despite all of this, I've been reluctant to talk about the cost of my care with the people who provide it: my doctors. The idea of discussing my finances during a doctor's appointment makes me uncomfortable. I've been asking myself why lately, and I'm still not sure of the answer."
Suleika goes on to quote a study by a clinic in North Carolina which found that only one in five patients felt comfortable discussing their medical bills with their doctors, even at a cost to them of nearly US$600 per month. The lead author and doctor behind the study, Dr Yousuf Zafar, equates this hesitancy with the fear of inferior health care. "Patients link cost to quality, and they fear that if they broach the topic of cost with their doctors they are going to get lower-quality care," he says.
However, of those who did discuss their money matters with their doctors, 57 per cent were able to reduce the cost of their treatment considerably. Doctors were then able to prescribe more affordable medications and refer patients to financial assistance programmes.
Sadly, should a patient be totally uninsured, there is not much a doctor can do. For patients like Suleika, they will have to face the full brunt of paying their medical bills alone. "Our legislators need to help us find cost-effective ways for patients with and without insurance to access quality health care. The steep price tag of cancer treatment needs to continue to be a part of the national conversation, not just the patient-doctor one," she says.
As someone who has been directly affected by cancer, I too share Suleika's frustrations. One of my best friends faced the same life interruption as Suleika. Only there was one big difference. When she was diagnosed with cancer at the young age of 26, she had her own critical illness cover in place. And so at that dire time in her life, she was covered and thankfully recuperated with the security that she wouldn't be bankrupted by the process - nor would her family.
Setting up your own critical illness and life insurance independent of your employer is a simple yet essential task. And it's one task that I urge you to complete this week. Many people suffer under the false belief that they have extensive coverage under their employer. Well, the truth is - you don't, not unless you can say that you own the business. And besides, no one can vouch that they will remain in the same job for the rest of their lives. When the job goes, so does your cover. Let Suleika's life lesson be one that motivates you into action, and get covered today.
Janelle Malone is a wealth commentator, writer and author. You can read her blog at www.womenmoneyandstyle.com