Sally Wylie, a retiree living on an island in Maine, was stunned when her long-term care (LTC) policy premium almost doubled. According to the Wall Street Journal article that recounted her dilemma, the one-time learning specialist took on part-time work to help with the finances, and she and her husband cut back on expenses to afford the premium for the policy that was purchased to be their safety net (1).
Permanent life insurance has experienced similar, large cost increases. Because of articles we published in the last few years on this subject, we have received more than one hundred emails from consumers stung by the cost of insurance (COI) increase on their life policies. Some people, like Sally and her husband, scrimp in other areas to pay the increased policy costs. Others have simply dropped coverage, which I suspect many long-term care policyholders have also done.
The cost increase dilemma facing life and long-term care policyholders stems from the decade-long, historic low-interest rate environment. Insurance carriers take in premiums, invest them and (hopefully) generate enough investment income to pay out future benefits and still make a profit. The general accounts of most insurers are invested primarily in high-grade corporate bonds. As the chart to the right, which shows the bond yield for Moody’s Seasoned Aaa Corporate Bonds, points out, bond rates have been slipping generally downward for the last 35 years. And since the market crash of ‘08-’09, interest rates have dropped to never-before-seen lows.
John Hancock, the insurer of the federal government’s employee long-term care program, raised premiums dramatically after interest rates that were expected to rise after securing the government contract in 2009 instead dropped by about 33% (2).
Current assumption universal life insurance carriers profit from what is called the interest rate spread. They invest at 6%, credit the policy 4% and keep 2% as “profit.” One carrier, among the first to raise COI rates, was contractually obligated to credit their policies 5.5%, even while their investment earnings were less than 5%. No profit there.
Most LTC and life insurance policies experiencing the cost increase are older policies written in the ‘high’ interest years of the ‘80s and ‘90s, another characteristic these policy increases share. They both impact older aged policy holders who have paid premiums for 20 or 30 years. Many retirees, who have reduced income due to low interest rates in conservative investments, now face higher costs driven by those same low interest rates. And for most older life and LTC policy holders, there is no alternative. They are typically too old or unhealthy to obtain more economical coverage.
Another similarity is that carriers are providing both life and LTC policyholders, as a principal option, the ability to maintain the same premium cost by lowering the benefit that would be paid, reducing carrier liability while still retaining their cash flow. In every life insurance COI increase notice we have received, reduction of death benefit to retain current carrying cost is proposed as a policyholder choice. And LTC carriers are leading with the same benefit-reduction option.
Many policyholders—both LTC and life—are simply abandoning their policies after years of premium payments, potentially risking their retirement security. An article in the Wall Street Journal lamented the fact that use of private retirement insurance products is dropping, with the burden being shifted to public plans (3). The needs of a widow whose husband dies without life insurance or a couple incurring large LTC bills without resources will shift to and drain the public system going forward.
As the article pointed out, “retirement security isn’t just about having a nest egg, but…also about having options for turning that saving into security.” For some who have seen the costs of their life insurance and LTC policies rise, some of their retirement security may be slipping away.
- “Millions Bought Insurance to Cover Retirement Health Costs. Now They Face an Awful Choice.” Leslie Scism, Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2017.
- “Another Big Long-Term Care Insurance Premium Hike.” Howard Gleckman, Forbes Magazine, August 1, 2016.
- “Retirement Insurance Products Are Disappearing. And That’s Dangerous.” Benjamin Harris, Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2018.
Carriers need to do much more to advise on benefit decreases for UL and WL with term blends. The statements may mention the option to decrease the benefit, but I have not seen any UL policies and few WL policies that automatically solve for what can be supported with the current cash value and premium. You have to be aware and request illustrations of these options. Appropriate solves may not be readily available. These face adjustments should be done before the policy value starts decreasing.