Critical illnesses are expensive - are you prepared?

(BPT) - The cost of a critical illness - a heart attack, cancer or stroke - can hit thousands of dollars. It can push families to the financial brink, as more than half say they have little or no savings.

The problem has become so acute that more employers are making critical illness insurance available through the workplace as part of their menu of available benefits, Kaiser Health News reports. Critical illness insurance is designed to protect personal finances during one of the most difficult times that any individual or family can face. The coverage, which pays a lump-sum benefit if the insured suffers a covered critical illness, can help plug the gaps that medical and other insurance do not cover.

Expenses for a critical illness can be daunting. The National Cancer Institute for instance, reports on a study that estimates the initial costs for treating cancers, ranging from a low of $4,047 for a melanoma to a high of $115,250 for brain cancer in 2010 dollars. These figures don't include ongoing treatments, which the study estimates can also run several thousands of dollars annually.

Few people are prepared. More than half of all respondents to a 2013 Federal Reserve survey reported little or no savings, meaning they could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 or more without selling something or borrowing money.

While health care insurance covers medical costs for doctors, treatments and medication, there are often deductibles and co-pays that can leave patients and their families with thousands of dollars in uncovered costs, according to James Ocampo, assistant vice president for MassMutual's workplace benefits unit. In addition, the treatment of serious illnesses often come with other unanticipated costs such as travel, food and lodging for visiting out-of-area specialists or care facilities; child care or elder care; or home care or long-term care for the patient, he said.

"Employers are recognizing the adverse financial impacts that a critical illness can have on employees and are, therefore, making critical illness coverage available through the workplace," Ocampo says. "The insurance benefit is paid directly to the employee to provide an extra infusion of cash to help cover medical expenses, mortgage payments, child care or even groceries. The coverage can often be purchased for the cost of what many people spend on coffee every month."

The coverage offered through employers is typically voluntary, meaning employees pay the full cost of the coverage offered at their workplace. The policies cover employees and, where available, spouses and children as well.

"You can't predict when a critical illness might strike and, when one does, it can be financially devastating for many Americans," Ocampo said. "Critical illness coverage can help ensure that a serious illness doesn't become a critical situation for your finances."

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