Staying Alive In China: A Quick Guide to Buying Health Insurance

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Recently, our esteemed Editor-in-Chief was struck down by sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), which resulted in complete deafness in one ear. Random as the disease sounds, it turns out that it’s not all that rare. Still, no one could have seen it coming.

Despite being the father of two, he’s gone years in China without any health insurance. Why? Like many, he relies on the common belief that paying hospital fees out of pocket in China is affordable, cheap even. Of course, logically we all know this notion is rapidly thrown out of the window once real illness strikes, so what gives?

I could practically hear the voices of people from home imploring me to consider what would happen if I was hit by an errant driver or got violent food poisoning that would require
in-patient care.

Being present during this crisis brought me back to my own struggles to justify the seemingly wasteful act of dropping hard-earned cash on health insurance. Speaking to others around Dongguan, I found there’s a similar mentality—apathy, perhaps—towards the whole concept that has fully permeated much of the community. My guess is that this misconception extends dangerously well beyond the borders of China into many countries lacking socialized medicine and possessing much higher treatment costs (e.g. the United States of America).

The question is, why are we so confidently myopic?
When I moved to China a tad shy of a year ago, I was afraid. Before I even bought my plane tickets, I was injected with fear by others referencing tales of China hearsay, not to mention the actual shots primed with vaccines to fight diseases that I had only previously encountered while reading stories of far-off lands. Now, I was on the verge of moving to this apparently savage place.

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Edmund Liu

One of my first intentions—after finding a nearby grocery store and reliable VPN—was to enroll in a comprehensive healthcare plan. I could practically hear the voices of people from home imploring me to consider what would happen if I was hit by an errant driver or got violent food poisoning that would require in-patient care.

Like any responsible internet user, I started researching.

Falling deep into the cavernous world of insurance led me to a quick, clear realization: I know nothing about the responsibilities of life.

This isn’t like learning how to file taxes or paying utilities on time-type of breach into adulthood; it was far more intimidating. I was effectively being forced to put a valuation on the fragility of my mortality and I felt painfully overwhelmed.

cover1After applying to a few different providers online and checking countless reviews from those companies, I came to another conclusion: they’re all expensive and they all will probably reject my claim, if it ever even came. Lost in a sea of anxiety and intimidation, I didn’t know how to proceed. I convinced myself that I needed some time to think.

In the end, I stopped searching and forgot about it.

Addressing the concerns
As it turns out, I’m not alone. I ran a simple poll on one of Dongguan’s largest Facebook groups and asked if people have insurance and if not, why? Exactly one-third of the respondents said they didn’t because of high costs and complexities. Casually asking the same question to people around the city and listening to those responses makes me think coverage-less individuals are much higher than 33 percent.

A simple web search asking why people don’t buy health insurance will turn up page after page of explanations for common factors. From the “I’m healthy now, so why should I buy?” to the general skepticism of insurance companies, far too many people around the globe are gambling their entire financial stake—and often the savings of those around them—on the assumed reliability of their health.

Far too many people around the globe are gambling their entire financial stake—and often the savings of those around them—on the assumed reliability of their health.

“People say, I don’t trust insurance. I say to them, ‘do you have a first aid box at home?’ They say yes. That is insurance. ‘You have a car? How many wheels do you have?’ They answer, four, plus a spare. That is insurance. Insurance isn’t dangerous, it’s keeping yourself safe,” said Edmund Liu, a Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) agent from Hong Kong that now works for an international insurance brand in Dongguan.

In reality, though, purchasing health insurance isn’t as simple as buying and using a fire extinguisher or spare tire. Personal health is a lot more significant than a car or building. Plus, there’s also the damning human element of greed that’s thrown into the mix.

“Now, there are so many people working in this business and many of them only finish high school and can’t find any better job than selling insurance. The qualification for this job is so low in China. All you need for hiring is to be an adult. In Hong Kong, the regulation is much stricter,” said Jack Wong Zhong Yuan, also selling international insurance from Hong Kong.

Trust is key. Say you go shopping for a new TV with a friend. The wall is lined with various sizes and models boasting alluring features. In the midst of your overwhelming bewilderment, a salesperson walks up and offers to help. You know the guy: slicked hair and a beaming smile revealing flesh-eating teeth.

Glancing at your friend for a sign of support, they nod that the guy is okay and you accept his assistance. With that simple gesture of a friend’s approval, all fears boiling inside of you are quieted and no matter what the salesman says, you’re going home with a TV.

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Julie Zhang

Will he find you the best TV for your money? Maybe. Will the salesman cheat you? Possibly? Does it matter? Not really, because you’ll still have a machine that will project video and satisfy your entertainment needs. The reality is that this is no perfect TV. When a new, super RedRay, 10K video technology is released and your tube won’t support it, will you be sad? Perhaps, but for the wide variety of needs, your TV will make you happy.

There also is no perfect health plan. Whether you spend a lot or go bare-bones, it’s impossible to say what’s best for you. Only professionals can help you potentially reach a certain satisfaction. Going alone will—like me—leave you considerably overwhelmed.

“Today, people look to people they know, those who they can trust. Cold-calling or handing out business cards to strangers doesn’t work anymore. Customers should ask their friends or family about agents they know and like,” added Jack.

There also is no perfect health plan. Whether you spend a lot or go bare-bones, it’s impossible to say what’s best for you. Only professionals can help you potentially reach a certain satisfaction.

Finding an effective and trustworthy agent to help you is almost more important that choosing the plan itself. If, for example, the plan you originally buy isn’t cutting it, you can always go back to your representative and explain your problem. At that point, only they can help you to find a meaningful solution.

Let them help you
“I ask many customers, ‘what’s in your plan?’ They don’t know. I ask them how much they pay. They always know. That’s not good. They need to know what their plan is to know if it’s good for them,” said Julie Zhang, operating as an independent agent for many different companies.

cover2When first looking into policies, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focusing on cost. Naturally, knowing how much you’ll need to pay is crucial, but it’s a fine line between choosing for price or benefits. Both should be carefully considered.

Edmund starts the whole process with a friendly conversation. “I first find out what you need. Then, I look for the details that are best for you. The plans are personalized for every customer,” he explains.

If an agent doesn’t know anything about you, how can they appropriately help you? This was my dooming mistake when I was researching. In trying to avoid talking to real people for fear of being pushed into a decision I felt unsure to make, I jumped on the internet and attempted to do the research myself. I knew myself, but I didn’t know the best options. A good agent should know both.

“When you want to buy insurance, you should look for a reliable person to help choose the right insurance because most people don’t have time to study all the plans to decide what’s best for them,” emphasizes Jack.

“Once you get sick, it’s too late. No insurance company will accept you or it will be very expensive. Getting care now, keeps you safe for later.”

Besides, the whole industry is more advanced these days, allowing a person to easier understand the details and more fluidly make decisions.

“Today, we can use an iPad to do a proposal. The signing, the payments, everything will be digital and will go directly to the underwriters. I just take photos of the documents and its done,” describes Edmund. Though alarming that process can be completed so quickly, it doesn’t mean that you’re completely trapped once you’ve signed away your soul.

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“You can buy insurance and sign the documents, but the company might also cancel the plan. You may also decide to cancel the insurance. During a 14-day cool off period, [both parties] have the right to cancel your plan. It’s the law,” reminds Edmund. This means that if anything gives you a bad feeling within 14 days after signing, you can cancel your plan with little resistance, losing only your time. Still, just because you can easily cancel, doesn’t mean you should sign up for any random thing on a whim. Be patient and move carefully.

Staying alive in Dongguan
No matter how you swing it, securing yourself probably won’t be all that fun or pleasurable, but it is important—especially, if you’re responsible for a family.

If you get sick or injured, perhaps you can lean a bit on the generosity of the local community, but what if there’s no one to answer the call?

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Jack Wong Zhong Yuan

“Once you get sick, it’s too late. No insurance company will accept you or it will be very expensive. Getting care now, keeps you safe for later,” cautions Julie. Though she’s in this business to make money, what she says is true. If you get sick or injured, perhaps you can lean a bit on the generosity of the local community, but what if there’s no one to answer the call?

“It’s important to always think ahead. My husband had a problem and we went to many different hospitals in China to fix it. We only had insurance for China and couldn’t go to Hong Kong because we would have to pay. The doctors [in China] just wanted us to pay, but didn’t know if they could fix the problem. Finally, we decided to just go to Hong Kong and pay. It was fixed in three days. After that, we always buy international insurance,” recounts Julie, reminding us that agents are humans, as well.

cover4Of course, remember the more international the plan is, the higher the price. Ultimately though, securing yourself should be a priority to the money you spend.

Jack reminds us to always consider: “Life is one time, but you can always make more money.”

Find someone you trust, talk with them, do some research and sign onto something. It’s never too late to buy, until it really is too late. When you’re deep in frustration on what to choose, remember that the complexities of buying insurance can never measure up to the pressure of fighting an illness without it.

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