How Insurance Companies Use Your Past Against You

By Amanda Egge 04/04/11

Getting health insurance can be tricky when your past isn’t squeaky clean. Our writer explains how she did it.


Most people in my position would probably lie on their health insurance application.  I didn’t. To question number 24, “Have you ever used illegal intravenous (IV) drugs?”  I checked “Yes.”

It’s not like it’s a secret.  I’m a comedian.  All an insurance company would have to do is Google me and they could probably find a reference to my heroin use.  But while the bitter truth of my past may make great comedy material, insurance companies reject you or charge more money for such information.
I thought about checking “No.” After all, it was 14 years ago and only three times. And by three times I mean on three different days. On each of those days I poked somewhere between one and 20 holes in my arm using one to three different drugs. I can’t tell you how many injections I made exactly, because who’s counting when you’re smacked out of your mind?
As far as my medical liability, the fact that I stuck a needle in my arm between one and 60 times back in 1996 shouldn’t really matter.  I didn’t share needles; I don’t have hepatitis or HIV. The little track marks I made healed in a week or two.  My IV drug use is a technicality really.
I didn’t check “yes” because I felt it was something my medical providers needed to know or because I’m some sort of saint who can’t lie on a health insurance application.  I checked “yes” because at the end of the application, above the place where you have to sign your name, it says that if you knowingly omit or falsify information, they can cancel your insurance and make you pay back any medical expenses they paid on your behalf.
That would mean, that if I got breast cancer, something totally unrelated to my heroin use, they could not only stop paying for my chemo but make me pay for any treatment I had thus far received--all because I lied on question 24. I didn’t want to risk that.
I sent in the insurance application.  I felt like I had just applied for college, only in this case, I wasn’t so sure I was going to get in.
A few days later I received a phone call. “Hello, this is Jennifer from Anthem Blue Cross. We received your health insurance application and I just have a few questions. You answered ‘yes’ to question 24: ‘Have you ever used illegal intravenous (IV) drugs?’” she continued, as if I didn’t already know.  As if I may have somehow accidently checked the yes to sticking-needles-in-my-arm box.
“Yes, I have. Three times when I was 19.  Since then I’ve gone to rehab.  I’m 10 years clean now.”
“What did you go to rehab for?”
“I did pretty much everything… heroin, cocaine…” I told her.  Normally, I just tell people heroin, but when talking to Jennifer, I thought it would sound better if I added the cocaine since coke is used socially. There is no such thing as social heroin use. And it wasn’t a lie; I did do a lot of coke.  And pot and pills and mushrooms and acid and ecstasy.  But at 23, in the months before I went to rehab, I was pretty much just smoking heroin.
“How much were you using?”
I thought for a second. Should I give her a dollar amount? I have honestly no idea how many glassine envelopes I went through every day, let alone how much heroin was in each one. “I don’t know, every six hours?” I answered. It was at least that. I remember that six hours was the point at which I would start to feel sick if I didn’t do more heroin.
“Okay, but how much?”
“I don’t know, it’s not like I measured it out on a scale each time. I just did it,“ I said.  
“Okay,” she said, moving on. “Do you have alcoholism?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Technically, a doctor has never diagnosed me with alcoholism. In recovery circles, they say it’s a self-diagnosed disease, and I do identify as an alcoholic, but do I really want to diagnose myself to the insurance company with something that may increase my rate? 
“I believe it’s all the same thing,” I said, side-stepping the issue.
“But do you have alcoholism?” 
“In my rehab, they told us not to drink or do drugs,” I replied, avoiding actually admitting what I have said thousands of times since I got sober.
“So they treated you for alcoholism at the rehab?”  
“Yes they did,” I answered honestly.
“Do you go to AA meetings?” she asked. 
Really, they can ask that?  What ever happened to anonymity?
I answered her question honestly. Then she asked me a few questions about some doctor visits I had made in the past year and the interview ended.
I wondered if I would get rejected for admitting I was in recovery. How would the insurance company view that?  Would they view it as a positive?  “Look at this girl, she had a problem and she hasn’t had a drink or drug in 10 years. She’s a success story!” Or would they view it as a liability? “Sure she’s been okay for the last 10 years, but she’s said it herself, she’s got alcoholism. She might not be drinking today, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be sucking a glass dick tomorrow!”
A week later I got the verdict: I was approved for health insurance with a 25% rate increase.  It comes to about $40 extra per month--or as I like to think of it, about 12 hours worth of heroin.
Amanda Egge is a comedian and writer living in Hollywood.
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