The vital importance of health insurance

Written by Rebecca O'Connor on 15th January 2018

The last few weeks are a blur. My poor Mum, starving because of a bowel obstruction, caused by a tumour wrapping itself around the outside of her gut and slowly closing it off.

Last week, she received a life-saving ileostomy operation on the NHS, so that she can eat again and live to fight the peritoneal cancer that has dominated the last five years of her life (and ours) another day. And so begins another period of uncertainty, rounds of chemo of varying effectiveness, illness caused by the chemo, numerous and constant rounds of tests. Just to buy more time, of unknown duration.

The day before her operation, we talked a lot about death. Inevitable for all of us, but constantly giving Mum the hard stare. Scary and preferably avoided, even though she knows it is coming sooner for her than others, Mum understandably elected to cheat it once more, despite being offered the option of “enjoying the last few weeks with your family”.

We also talked about the last five years and how despite the struggle, the surgeries, the sickness and constant concern about catching some bug or other, it was all totally worth it.

Mum has met, loved and spent valuable time with her second grandson, who she held straight after he was born. She’s built valuable memories with the now 6-year old one, who was just 1 when she was first diagnosed. She’s helped numerous people suffering with cancer with her learning on things like the best nutrition and supplements to take to help support the body through chemo and she’s done more soul-searching and life-understanding than many of us have time for. But most of all, she’s just been there, to talk to, to laugh with, to lean on. And that simple state of just being there, together with the small hope of proper survival, is enough for her, no matter how close to death she has been in the last few weeks, to keep trucking.

I don’t think those five years would have happened without her private medical insurance. This is not an anti-NHS thing, don’t get me wrong, the NHS has saved her life: twice. But it has also done a lot wrong in her case, such as misdiagnosing her symptoms as Irritable Bowel Syndrome for an entire year before the cancer around her bowel was so bad she was rushed in and given a life-saving, but frankly botched, stoma, which was subsequently reversed by a private surgeon.

Her experience of the NHS this time around, a full five years later, has not been stellar. The resource constraints are real: from beds, to drugs, to sick bowls, to Yorkshire puddings… patients might be in luck, or they might not, and the apologies sound routine.

Yes, there are a lot of good people working very hard to look after patients properly, but there are also a lot of people on NHS wards who seem to have found their way there despite being the very opposite of what you would expect of anyone in a caring profession, and unqualified to boot.

I’ll give just one example (though there are many to choose from) before moving on: the morning after Mum’s surgery, after waking up in the stoma care ward drugged up, weak and weary, she receives assistance from a nurse with her new stoma bag. But the nurse had put it on the wrong way up and when she took it off, covered Mum in its contents. For an hour, she endured the physical struggle of having to stand, despite having no strength, and the degradation of a clean-up. Not surprisingly, she found this traumatising.

But the private care she has received in between her two NHS surgeries: the support, access to drugs – both variety and duration – has been, as I understand it, far better than she would have received on the NHS. Some of the chemo drugs, which have helped keep her cancer at bay, were not available on the NHS at the time, because they were too expensive. No waiting times. Frequent check ups. Familiarity with nursing staff, has all added up to an experience that can be endured, rather than one from which death is a preferable escape.

The premiums for her medical insurance, from WPA, have always been relatively high, they started at £120 a month back in 2004 when Mum and my Stepdad took the policy out and are now at £220 a month. But they have been a price worth paying (also, they don’t penalise you for past claims, as some medical insurance providers do). Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, three years after the policy started and five years before this latest tumour got going.

My Mum isn’t by any means rich – health insurance is how she has chosen to spend her spare pennies every month, rather than holidays, which she and my Stepdad don’t go on, or entertainment.

The total cost of the bill that WPA has picked up for Mum’s five years+ of treatment for her peritoneal cancer runs well above six figures. It has paid for consultations and surgery at London hospitals, with the top experts in this niche field of oncology, as well as her care closer to home. It has saved her life in increments over and over and over again.

Mum’s experience has made me hyper aware of looking after my own health – both preventatively, through good diet and exercise, but also by making sure everything is in place if I do need medical treatment. We pay for Vitality Health Insurance*, which covers the whole family for £172 a month. We have extended cancer cover, which covers all eligible costs related to cancer, including treatment, tests and investigations, as well as up to two weeks of end-of-life home nursing care.

I don’t think that the best way to support the NHS is to eschew private medical cover when we can afford it – I’m aware that the UK is slowly sliding towards a US-style, paid-for only health service and that people who pay for private medical insurance are a part of that. It’s a massive shame, to put it mildly. But I still pay my taxes; I’m still paying for the NHS. I also know that I don’t want to be solely dependent on it, if and when I need medical help. I’d rather be guaranteed a bed, access to as many drugs as I need regardless of the cost or where in the country I live, and a nurse who actually seems to give a shit about whether I get better.

I love Vitality (they aren’t paying me – or this site – to say that, although the link above is a referral link). By linking up my Fitbit and my Ocado account, Vitality can see how much exercise and healthy eating I do (a lot). And we’ve gone from bronze status to gold (nearly), enjoying the benefits of better rewards (such as money off BA flights, weekly free Starbucks coffee and money off Mr and Mrs Smith bookings).

The things with private medical insurance is that it is counter-intuitive – you are paying quite a lot for something you hope you will never need. By offering rewards, Vitality overcomes this – you ARE getting something for those payments, even if you aren’t using the cover. And the healthier you become, inspired in part by the rewards, the less likely it is that you will need to make a claim.

It’s clever, positive all round and I love it. So much so that when Vitality ran a competition for a customer to be the star of their radio adverts, I entered and won and am now, proudly, the radio voice of Vitality, alongside Jessica Ennis-Hill (you can watch me embarrassing myself below):

Kevin Carr is an independent consultant who works with a number of insurance companies, including Vitality, British Friendly, LifeSearch and Drewberry. He says: “Like most insurance, you don’t know how important it really is until you need it. When it comes to life cover, critical illness and income protection, over 90 per cent of all claims are paid, and most people pay £20-30pm for each type cover. Those who claim, especially their families, understand the importance of having the right cover in place – not just the money, but also the additional support that most modern policies include. Speaking to an adviser can be important and contrary to what many believe, can save you money too.”

My Mum is hoping to be out of hospital on Wednesday and recovering at home, in a bed donated by the British Red Cross (in the absence of stomach muscles, she needs the adjustable bed), but with better food, more peace and a cat for cuddles.

I don’t know what’s in store for our public health service, but personally, I’m glad that Mum hasn’t been dependent on it, instead only dipping in and out when necessary. I’m glad that my family isn’t, too. We are lucky, I realise, before anyone points that out, to have that option. But my Mum isn’t by any means rich – health insurance is how she has chosen to spend her spare pennies every month, rather than holidays, which she and my Stepdad don’t go on, or entertainment. The opportunity cost of our own £172 a month could be a family holiday for a week. I couldn’t be happier to go without it.

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 *referral link. This means I receive a £50 John Lewis voucher if you sign up to Vitality and you get one too.