1493786960452 - Redundant, diagnosed with MS and housebound

Redundant, diagnosed with MS and housebound

One day you can be fully functioning and working full-time, and the next day you’re not able to. You might think “that will never happen to me” but the harsh reality is, sometimes it does. 

And unless you have other options up your sleeve, you could find yourself at the mercy of Work and Income and their systemised, heartless approach to dealing with people with sickness or disabilities.

Thankfully my own Work and Income experience was temporary. Maybe I got sucked in by the commercials saturating Australian television promising “peace of mind in times of uncertainty and stress” or possibly I experienced an uncharacteristic attack of astute financial foresight. Either way, at the age of 51, I decided it would be prudent to take out income protection insurance.

After spending minimal effort on any meaningful research, I selected a broker and duly set about completing the application form. At the time I was living and working in Australia and – although I had no particular health issues – I dismally noted my family’s propensity to various types of cancer and wondered if this was going to be a wholesale waste of money given that any claim incorporating the merest hint of the C-word would no doubt be rejected.

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Besides that, once you pass the half-century mark you’re not likely to come out on the winning side after having your medical records scrutinised by an enthusiastic assessor pursuing that holy grail of insurance key performance indicators: a pre-existing condition.

Despite this, I went ahead with the policy and kept it going after I returned to New Zealand permanently in 2013. I adjusted the monthly benefit amount so it was in line with my lower New Zealand earnings when I returned. In fact, I had to keep adjusting it annually as the insurer was clearly labouring under a misguided fantasy that I was receiving yearly pay increases and would automatically raise their premiums accordingly.

Although they discourage you from decreasing it, it’s foolish to be paying for more than you’re earning since you can’t claim more than the loss resulting from the situation, and financial evidence of your earnings for the previous year is required at claim time.

In this regard I was somewhat unlucky when claim time came. In September 2016 I received the news that I had primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS). I had been experiencing vague indications of the disease for almost four years, but thought it was just a bad back coupled with fatigue associated with menopause. My symptoms gradually deteriorated, leading me to undergo fairly major spinal surgery in 2015.

It was whilst I was recuperating from the surgery, and virtually a year to the day prior to the relapse that led to my diagnosis, that my position at work was made redundant.

Not all income protection policies cover redundancy, only disability caused by an accident or illness. Redundancy protection could have been added at an additional cost, but this was significant so I had just opted for the standard policy.

After my redundancy I was on a Work and Income benefit which, along with a small amount of temporary and contract work over the Christmas and New Year period, kept me going until February 2016, when I finally secured a full-time position.

This meant that for the year prior to my disability, I was down by nearly four months’ worth of full-time earnings, which in turn meant that my income protection claim amount could be adjusted accordingly.

On the upside, I had managed (by sheer good fortune) to select an insurer that covered MS in their income protection policy. I have absolutely no family history of MS, nor was I experiencing any symptoms at the time of taking out my policy, so I certainly wasn’t investigating the “MS-friendly” insurers. I can only assume that the reason why some insurers don’t cover MS is that it generally affects people over a long period of time.

There was another potential fish hook that I had heard could affect my ability to make a claim. I had taken out the cover whilst in Australia, with an Australian insurer.

Like all New Zealand migrants living in Australia, I had a temporary or special category visa – unique to New Zealand citizens. Therefore, although I could live in Australia indefinitely, I didn’t have permanent resident status. Having permanent residency is essential for some income protection insurers. So, in the event of a claim and even if i were still living in Australia, I would be ineligible.

Many New Zealanders have found this out the hard way.

I contacted my broker in Australia, who was extremely helpful. I was assured that any claim would be considered under the terms and conditions of the policy in the same manner as an Australian citizen. I duly filled out the multitudinous forms, complete with financial statements and lists of doctors and specialists that I’d visited over the past three years. The final lodgement form comprised almost 50 pages.

It would almost be enough to put some people off claiming altogether, particularly those coping with an illness affecting their cognitive ability. Having said that, it was no worse than the rigmarole you have to go through with Work and Income when you have a disability, and for a much less generous reward.

As with most income protection policies, there is a waiting period, the length of which is determined by the amount of monthly premium you’re willing to pay. I applied to Work and Income and was put on a Jobseeker benefit to tide me over and applied for a disability allowance.

Unfortunately with Work and Income, as soon as a disability is factored into the equation a whole raft of exhausting paperwork materialises that is made exasperatingly worse because you have … a disability.

What is even more puzzling is you have to continue to provide certified evidence of your disability every three months, even when you have an incurable disease.

That waiting period, when I was reliant on Work and Income, was one of the most demoralising periods of my life. I’d just been diagnosed with a serious and disabling disease, I had negative expectations that I would get much – if anything – out of my income protection policy. Also, I was being continuously bombarded with computer-generated letters from Work and Income warning me I had two weeks before I needed make myself available for at least 30 hours of work per week and that I must attend courses and work assessments.

On top of this, I needed to provide evidence of job applications and I was furnished with helpful suggestions about contacting employers in my area and visiting employment agencies. No mention of my disability or advice on how to get to any of these interviews or courses was forthcoming.

I was totally housebound. I was no longer able to drive my car and I live nearly an hour out of town, without access to public transport with disabled facilities. I was lucky to have understanding employers who had agreed to work around my disability and keep me on in a part-time capacity as soon as I was physically able to manage it.

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Yet clearly Work and Income expected me to simply shake off this inconvenient bout of MS and slip back into the workforce with ease and confidence, whereas in reality it took me most of the morning just to have a shower.

The people I spoke to at Work and Income were always compassionate and helpful and told me to ignore these Jobseeker letters, but I still found it upsetting to receive them. Why create such an inhumane, bureaucratic machine that wastes money posting letters to people who can’t possibly comply with their demands?

Why was I being categorised as a job-seeker when clearly I wasn’t? Surely it must be possible to filter a database so that people with genuine disabilities don’t receive this never-ending stream of inappropriate and distressing correspondence? It wasn’t as though I’d made a “lifestyle choice” to go on a benefit. Why would I?

After rent and direct expenses relating to my disability were deducted, I was left with $45 a week for food, electricity, phone and other bills. That’s a fiscally fraught juggling act even when you’re not disabled.

Fortunately for me, after the Christmas and New Year period had passed I found I was able to do a small amount of part-time work from home and AIA eventually approved my insurance claim for partial disability.

I’ve got to admit that there were times, particularly after my redundancy, when I struggled to pay some of those premiums. But I’m so glad now that I did.

Even though my present situation is not exactly the financially unburdened way of life depicted in the cheesy TV commercials, it beats the heck out of that soul-destroying Work and Income experience.

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