A Word (or two) About Income Protection Insurance

You might think ‘that will never happen to me’ but the harsh reality is, sometimes it does.  One day you can be fully functioning and working full time … and the next day you’re not able to.  And unless you have other options up your sleeve, you could find yourself at the mercy of WINZ and their systemised, heartless approach to dealing with people with disabilities.

Thankfully my own WINZ experience was temporary.  Maybe I got sucked in by the TV 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 doubtless be rejected.  Besides that, once you pass the half century mark you’re not likely to come out on the winning side once you’ve had your medical records scrutinized by an enthusiastic assessor pursuing that holy grail of insurance KPIs:  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, adjusting the monthly benefit amount so that it was in line with my lower New Zealand earnings.  In fact I had to keep adjusting it on a yearly basis as the insurer was clearly labouring under a misguided fantasy that I was actually fortunate enough to be receiving annual pay increases and their premiums would rise accordingly.  Although they try to advise you not to decrease 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 for me after receiving the news in September 2016 that I had multiple sclerosis.  I had been experiencing vague indications of the disease for nearly four years but thought it was just a ‘bad back’ coupled with fatigue associated with menopause.  By June 2015 my symptoms had deteriorated leading me to undergo fairly major spinal surgery after which followed a period of recuperation.  It was during this recovery time that I was made redundant from my position at work, just a year prior to my diagnosis.  As with all standard income protection policies, none cover job redundancy, only disability caused by an accident or illness.  Redundancy Protection could have been added at an additional cost, however the cost was significant and I had just opted for the standard policy.

In October 2015, I had to apply to WINZ for a Jobseeker benefit and what I received on that wasn’t able taken into account as ‘earnings’ when calculating the monthly benefit of my income protection claim.  The closer that Christmas 2015 came, the less likely I was of securing employment other than a small amount of temporary and contract work, and it wasn’t until February 2016 that I finally secured a full time position.  This meant that my earnings for the 12 months prior to my disability were down by nearly four months’ worth of full time earnings, which in turn meant that my income protection claim would be adjusted accordingly.

On the extremely fortunate side of the equation though, I had fortuitously and without knowledge aforethought, chosen AIA as my insurer.  AIA cover multiple sclerosis in their income protection policy whereas many insurers will not.  I have absolutely no family history of multiple sclerosis and 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 lack of cover for Multiple Sclerosis is that it generally affects people over a long period of time and for people with the relapsing/remitting variety, its symptoms can be sporadic.

There was also yet another potential fish hook with this policy.  I had taken out the income protection cover in 2011 when I was living and working in Australia and intending to live there permanently.   When I was living in Australia (like all New Zealand migrants), I had a temporary visa or special category visa unique to New Zealand citizens therefore, although I could live in Australia indefinitely, I didn’t have permanent resident status.  For some income protection insurers, having permanent residency is a must in the event of a claim so that even if I were still living in Australia, I would still not be able to claim (as many New Zealanders have found to their cost).  Again, by sheer good fortune and without my having done any advanced research, AIA claims are not dependent on this.

In the face of my negative expectation that I would meet the criteria required to qualify for a cracker out of this income protection policy, I contacted my broker in Australia who turned out to be incredibly helpful.  I duly filled out the multitudinous forms, complete with financial statements and lists of doctors, specialists etc that I’d visited over the past three years.  The final lodgement form comprised nearly fifty pages of information relating to my claim.  It would almost be enough to put some people off claiming altogether, particularly those coping with a distressing diagnosis that may affect their cognitive abilities.  Having said that, it was a huge improvement on the rigmarole you have to go through with WINZ and for a much less generous reward.

As with most income protection policies, there is a waiting period, the length of which is normally determined by the amount of monthly premium you’re willing to pay. In my case, I had a period of four months where I had to rely on a WINZ benefit supplemented by some fairly sporadic work, which again was over the Christmas/New Year period, so needless to say it wasn’t much.

The New Year brought mixed blessings.  I had developed a pressure wound on the heel of my foot which had exacerbated my MS symptoms and affected my mobility to the extent where I had now come to the realisation that I was going to have to move house.  There were slippery slopes and accessibility issues where I was living, however it was cheaper than anything else I was likely to get and there are always costs associated with moving.

The story does however have a fortunate ending.  Just prior to my admission to Burwood Hospital where I spent eight days in respite/recovery for the pressure wound in early February 2017, I received the news from AIA that my claim for partial disability had been approved.  Whilst I was in hospital, work from my amazing and very understanding employers had increased and the day I was discharged from hospital, I viewed a property that was perfect for my needs.  My wonderful friends helped me to move house and a couple of weeks after my discharge I was assessed for driving and passed with flying colours.  But best of all, I was at last able to kick WINZ into touch.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the people at WINZ, they were always compassionate and helpful, it was that whole inhumane bureaucracy behind the WINZ machine that I found so depressing.   Always sending totally inappropriate computer generated letters to people with disabilities who can’t possibly comply with their demands and always over you like a rash whenever your earnings slightly exceeded their weekly Jobseeker benefit amount, even though you were never a ‘Jobseeker’ in the first place.

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 $45.00 a week for food, electricity, phone etc.  That’s a fiscally fraught juggling act even when you’re not disabled.

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.  I urge everyone to think seriously about getting income protection insurance … I was lucky but best to do your research first.

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A WEEK OF IT

The title of this post might suggest that I’ve been away on an IT course for a week and whilst that prospect doesn’t fill me with uncontained excitement, it would be infinitely better than the ‘IT’ that I’m referring to. This ‘IT’ should really have an SH in front it …

 

Saturday 14th January

The blister that mysteriously appeared on the heel of my foot last Saturday is now about the size of a kiwifruit.  If it gets any bigger it will need its own passport.  This must be some weird MS related outburst as I’ve never had anything like this before.  It’s something I might expect if I’d done a week-long tramp in ill-fitting footwear.  Needless to say, I’ve done nothing of the sort.  It’s like a huge water blister and underneath the fluid I can see a dark red patch which, to stick with the fruit analogy, I would say would be about the size of a cherry plum and about the same colour.  I went to the doctors last week and they gave me antibiotics and tried to drain it but the damned thing just filled right on up again.  I don’t think this is a ‘normal’ blister and it’s playing havoc with my MS symptoms, possibly because I’m having to tiptoe on my left blistered foot while my right leg (which is the weaker of the two) is bravely trying to bear the majority of my weight.

By the evening my hips were stiff and sore, my left leg had gone completely numb, the kiwifruit felt as though it was close to boiling point and my right leg was as weak as water and just about ready to completely collapse.  I laid down, kept the blistered foot up and stuck a bag of frozen peas on it.   About an hour later to my immense relief, the bloody thing burst of its own accord.  I now have the suppurating remains of the kiwifruit to contend with and under the flapping skin, a squashed cherry plum which hurts like hell and I still can’t put any weight on it.

Monday 16th January

My daughter took my car to town today.  She’s going to drop it in to the specialist VW mechanics for the repairs that need to be done before I can get a Warrant of Fitness.  I’m really looking forward to being able to drive again and have some independence but I’m on a waiting list for a disability assessment.  Evidently these waiting lists can take six months but they’re hoping that mine might be considered more urgent as it will enable me to drive to work.  We have access to public transport here but it involves taking a ferry which has no disabled facilities at this end, although there are at its destination, which would be kind of annoying if you didn’t know this and were making the journey the other way around.  Anyway, I just hope I’m over this blister problem before my assessment comes up because I think I’d struggle to pass at the moment.

The doctor phoned and I need to go in and show them my now burst blister which is weeping all over the place.  Getting ready for my appointment when Katie texts with bad news.  About a week ago a tree blew over in the driveway and it was sort of shuffled out of the way to clear the driveway but Katie had forgotten it was still hiding in there and backed into it.  When you’re not used to driving a VW Beetle, the fenders tend to stick out more than you expect and she’s dented the right hand side and taken some of the paintwork off.  Bugger.

Blister seems OK and is re-dressed.  Phoned the mechanics later in the day to see when my daughter can collect the car.  Receptionist there tells me she hasn’t phoned earlier as this is her first day back after being away on maternity leave for eight months.  There is no way Katie can pick the car up today because the job is going to be ‘very big and very expensive’.  This is exactly what I don’t need to hear right now.  I ask her to phone me back to let me know exactly what I can expect as her statement of doom has left me in a state of angst and apprehension.  I spend a dismal afternoon imagining myself making a disheartening effort to pay a bill well into the thousands on a WINZ benefit.  I finally get through to the VW repair place after several attempts throughout the afternoon only to get a recap on the ‘madhouse after the eight month maternity leave’ situation and a ballpark estimate that the parts alone could be anywhere between seventy and a thousand dollars.  If all this ‘busyness’ is due to a surplus of customers, I am confident this woman will be capable of single-handedly remedying that situation in fairly short order.  My blister hurts, my legs don’t work and now my car is dented and damaged and I have no idea how much it’s going to cost to get fixed.  I have another letter from WINZ but I’m not in the mood to try to decide whether it’s one to ignore or action so I leave it unopened.

Tuesday 17th January

I decide that leaving my car in the hands of someone who can only forecast lengthy delays and large expense without backing it up with some facts and figures is naïveté to the point of foolishness.   Furthermore if I have to listen one more time about this woman’s problems due to taking maternity leave, I will feel compelled to give her a blow by blow account of my own.  My daughter knows of someone who works at Pitstop and they seem much more helpful and communicative but before she could pick up my car  their ‘helpful’ receptionist made her pay $97.75 just to remove it from the yard.   I write an email to the Manager in the hope that I might at least be able to recover this amount as they’re normally very good and have never had this trouble before but I never get a response so I won’t be going there again!

Blister is really shit.  I hope this isn’t a relapse – what with this blister and the stress I wouldn’t be surprised but I try not to even think of that possibility.

Wednesday 18th January

Blister is still weeping and sore and it seems to impact on the MS symptoms with every day that goes by but I’m not sure what to do about it.  I try lying down with my foot up as I’m feeling really buggered.  There is a really lively rodent running around in the walls of the house and the action seems to begin just as I’m about to drop off to sleep.  In fact I suspect it might be rodents (pl.).  I put out some rat bait, hopeful this will put a stop to their nocturnal shenanigans.  I walked up the slope to the driveway today which was very difficult.  I think I’m going to have to move house as walking up that slope in the wintertime is going to be a challenging undertaking once the rain and frost really set in.  I find the thought of moving exhausting and I don’t want to but suffice to say that at this stage I think this place is going to become too hazardous for me.  On the bright side, the WINZ letter was one of the ignorable computer generated variety (at least I think so).

Friday 20th January

I was able to get a cleaner through Life Links who in turn go through Access who in turn got me someone who services the area to come every Friday morning at 9:00am.  I have one hour and forty-five minutes allocated to me.  In some ways it’s a bit of a double edged sword as it means I have to get up early to get showered, dressed and breakfasted in order to tidy up a bit before she arrives.  This sounds easy but when you have MS along with a blistered foot that needs dressing, successfully meeting the 9:00am deadline is quite an achievement.   Furthermore I suspect the cleaner may have her own disability issues and it would be an understatement to say that she isn’t particularly efficient.  However I doubt she’s earning much more than the minimum wage so I probably can’t expect too much.

Today however I didn’t need to rush as she didn’t materialise until 9:45 and announced that she would have to change her hours as Access had altered her timetable and she had another job before and after mine which meant that in future I would only be getting just under an hour of my allocated time.  I phone Access to ask why my allocation had been cut down and get hold of their call centre.  Evidently they hadn’t altered her timetable at all and when they spoke to the cleaner about it she said that it was because she had completed everything she was required to do.  When I spoke to the call centre again I said that this was definitely not the case and I was being told it was because of them changing her schedule.  I didn’t seem to be able to get it through to Access that she hadn’t done everything that was authorised on their list and if they hadn’t altered her timetable, what this cleaner was actually telling me was in fact, a lie.  This was met with a somewhat patronising tone that the cleaner had done everything on the list and was therefore entitled to cut down her hours.  I got nowhere – clearly Access was happy to take the cleaners word for it but not mine.

Just before the cleaner left I asked her again why she was cutting down her hours and again she told me it was because of Access messing around with her timetable, but this time I hit the voice recorder button.  I phoned the local coordinator and explained what had happened and although she was a lot more helpful than the call centre, I cancelled the cleaning service.  I was all set to go through their complaints process, however when I thought about it, what would anyone have to gain by this?  It seemed like she’s the only one servicing our area and if she lost her job I doubt she’d get another one very easily and it would just be another poor soul floundering around in the WINZ system.  Even though she’d lied to me, it wasn’t really her I was upset with.  It was that woman at the call centre who would probably come out it unscathed.

So I leave it at that and concentrate on completing yet another form from my insurance company.  If I can only get this income protection claim approved I can get the hell out of this crazy system so I focus on that happy thought instead.

Saturday 21st January

It’s still Friday in the USA and Donald Trump gets inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.  God help us all.

nbc-fires-donald-trump-after-he-calls-mexicans-rapists-and-drug-runners

Forms, Forms and More Forms

I don’t think I’ve ever filled out so many forms in such a short space of time in my entire life.  Even without taking into account the absurd volume of written material required by WINZ, it seems that once you have a disability almost everyone you deal with requires you to produce an extraordinary amount of documentation.  Since failure to complete these forms means that you would be unable to access essential support services and entitlements, it’s a necessary yet utterly exhausting process, and not just for the person witdh the disability.  I’m certain my doctor has the urge to run for cover every time I send yet another form for him to complete.  And once the form is correctly completed, it would be foolish to think that your work is done.  Then you have to provide supporting documentation, medical reports, proof of identity, and so it goes on.  You may even need to get a Justice of the Peace involved.

The supreme award for the most gruelling, time-consuming form that required the greatest volume of supporting documentation, would have to go to my insurance company.  I have an income protection policy that I took out when I was living in Australia and have been paying into for some time now.  Since there is a waiting period involved, I at least had a reasonable amount of time to complete the forty five page masterpiece which once received was followed up by a fresh set of forms for me to complete.  It is still going through their exhaustive assessment process.  I just hope that after all the time, effort, and not to mention premiums, I have invested in it, it gets approved.  At least then I can escape the madness of these out of control, computer generated WINZ forms and letters.  Fingers crossed.

The Not so Wonderful World of WINZ

The Unfathomable World of WINZ

I want to make it abundantly clear that I have no wish to criticise the case workers and telephone support staff that I have dealt with personally over the past two months.  Without exception I have found them to be friendly, helpful and empathetic.  The problem is that they are dealing with vulnerable and sometimes desperate people with a wide range of needs that don’t always fit the flawed ‘one size fits all’ structure of the institution they work within.  I am of course, talking about WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand).

Prior to being hospitalised and later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in September this year, I’d had little to do with WINZ.  I was briefly on a Jobseeker benefit after being made redundant toward the end of last year but aside from the ignominy of going cap in hand to WINZ feeling like a dole bludger, it turned out to be a relatively straight-forward experience and in the new year I’d found temporary full-time employment and moved on.

Unfortunately with WINZ, 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. My hospital social worker was an enormous help in completing the voluminous paperwork required to access my ‘entitlements’.  I would’ve lost the will to live if I’d had to navigate through all that alone.  After four weeks of being hospitalised I returned home in a wheelchair, hopeful I would come to terms with this life-changing diagnosis and be able to concentrate on recovering to a point where I could eventually do a few hours work from home so I wouldn’t be fully reliant on a disability benefit.

The day after I was discharged from hospital I received my first Jobseeker Support payment from WINZ along with a letter saying they had determined I had two weeks before I needed to attend courses, work assessments and make myself available for work.  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.  Furthermore, I didn’t feel confident that two weeks would be sufficient time to rid myself of the overwhelming exhaustion that is part and parcel of MS and become a “Jobseeker” when the simple act of taking a shower took half the morning to accomplish.

The next correspondence I had from WINZ was a photocopy of one page of my Disability Certificate.  The YES/NO box that said “Does this person have a disability that meets the Disability Allowance criteria” hadn’t been ticked even though the rest of the form gave full details and a Work & Income Work Capacity Certificate had been submitted a month earlier ticked, signed and completed by the hospital saying “poor mobility, bowel & bladder control, fatigue and pain associated with multiple sclerosis”.  Unable to comply with their request to return the form in person with the now ticked box, I phoned to get a postal or email address.  This wasn’t possible.  I had to fax it.  I managed to find someone still using 1990’s technology and faxed if off hoping it hadn’t been reproduced on thermal paper and wasn’t quietly deteriorating to a yellowed state in the corner of some WINZ outpost.  I phoned to make sure they’d received it but was told it would take a few days to process.

The following day I received another letter from WINZ … “We understand you were admitted to hospital.  Please phone us immediately.  Unless you have ongoing costs that you can’t meet, your income support will reduce to $43.45 per week from 30 December.”  Aside from homeless individuals who might find themselves unfortunate enough to end up in hospital, who would fall into this category?  Most people I met in hospital had homes they were either paying rent or a mortgage for, the cost of which would be ongoing regardless of whether they’d been admitted to hospital.  Quite apart from the fact that WINZ must have known I wasn’t still in hospital as I’d spoken to them on the phone, why send out a letter that must apply to only a very small percentage of the population?  I phoned WINZ again and was told to ignore this letter.  I was starting to dread these communiqués from WINZ as it was adding to my stress and there was still no mention of my disability.

On the bright side, I was starting to feel a bit more confident and was learning to cope with my new disability.  I still had mobility and fatigue issues but had started to do a few hours work for my previous employer who have been amazingly supportive throughout my ordeal.  I declared this income to WINZ which was pretty meagre as I couldn’t do much in the way of hours but at least it was a step in the right direction.  I received an online letter from WINZ within hours.  My Jobseeker support had been suspended and I owed WINZ money.  I’d anticipated this and repaid a portion of what they thought I owed but I was still waiting for a resolution on the disability allowances I was due yet had heard nothing whatsoever about.

I contacted the hospital social worker and she was able to put someone from WINZ in touch with me from Auckland – due to the Kaikoura earthquake she wasn’t based in Christchurch, as they were terribly behind with their paperwork which was why my faxed form with the ticked disability box on it hadn’t been processed.  Furthermore it now couldn’t be processed because my benefit had been suspended due to my previous earnings declarations being slightly over the Jobseeker allowance!

In an effort to put my current position into perspective I read Angela’s Ashes from cover to cover and listened to the recently departed Leonard Cohen.

It’s strange how the Kaikoura earthquake can cause a three week delay processing my disability certificate, yet an online declaration of earnings can trigger an overnight letter in a heartbeat.  My Jobseeker Support had been restarted but Temporary Additional Support had stopped and deductions had been made to repay my debt.  No mention of disability, just a reminder that I owed the full amount without the repayment I’d made a week earlier deducted.  The letter ended with a spiel about attending interviews and courses and that l must accept any suitable job offer of work for at least 30 hours a week and provide evidence to WINZ of what I’m doing towards this.  There were even helpful suggestions about contacting employers in my area and visiting employment agencies.

By this stage I wasn’t only feeling depressed, I was angry.  I’m sure I’m not the first person who has just had their life turned upside down with a distressing diagnosis only to find they have to put up with this sort of stressful and inappropriate correspondence.  I phoned WINZ and was told to ignore the letter as it was computer generated and my disability allowances would be investigated and actioned.  I’m happy to say that this finally came to pass but not without a considerable amount of angst.  I feel desperately sorry for anyone in this position who may have a more upsetting and debilitating condition than I do and who might be less capable than me of dealing with this sort of inane crap.

I also feel sorry for the staff at WINZ because their dysfunctional system pushes people to levels of frustration that put them in the firing line for all kinds of abuse that isn’t necessarily their fault.  Why is there not such a thing as a Sickness Benefit?  And why do I have to keep sending off Medical Certificates every three months when I have an incurable disease – do WINZ know something about a forthcoming cure for MS that no-one else does?  Why must they treat people with genuine disabilities as full time ‘Jobseekers’ when they are physically and mentally incapable of pursuing that course of action.  Not only is it intimidating, it’s inhumane.

Furthermore, it would go a long way to preserving the mental wellbeing of this vulnerable group if we weren’t being constantly overwhelmed with a tsunami of irrelevant system-generated correspondence.  Perhaps WINZ should publish the Beginners Guide to Identifying Correspondence One Can Safely Ignore as it’s impossible to know when when to take it seriously and head for higher ground.

People with disabilities haven’t deliberately made some sort of lifestyle choice.  Most have paid their taxes and like me, have struck a hurdle and only want to pay their rent and put food on the table.  Let’s face it, no-one in their right mind would willingly choose to get caught up in the peculiarities of this unfathomable system.