Advocating Inclusion: Arman Ali’s Struggle for Equal Health Insurance for the Disabled

ARMAN ALI 2

This week, meet Arman Ali, a remarkable advocate for disability rights. Discover his inspirational journey, from conquering the barriers of cerebral palsy to leading the charge for inclusive health insurance. Join us as he shares the challenges he has overcome and his mission to make medi-claim and life insurance accessible to all. An exclusive interaction with Mahima Sharma…

Could you tell us about your journey, including the challenges you’ve faced with Cerebral Palsy, and how these experiences have shaped the empathetic side of your life story? We believe your story can inspire and resonate with others facing similar struggles.

Growing up in the vibrant city of Guwahati, India, my life’s path has been a compelling blend of resilience and challenges, all stemming from my disability (cerebral palsy). This disability primarily impacts my lower limbs and making a wheelchair an indispensable part of my life. As a child, I confronted the hurdles of securing an education since numerous schools lacked the facilities to accommodate my unique physical needs.

Eventually, I had to make the tough decision to leave traditional schooling behind, embarking on a journey of distance education to pursue my dreams. I have been working on the advocacy of disabled people from the last two decades influencing legislation and policies for empowerment of people with disabilities. And my journey has been quite gratifying in several ways. We have come a long way and still miles to go.

Could you please tell me more about your interactions with the bank regarding the insurance and the challenges you faced, even the details that weren’t provided in writing? I’m here to listen, and I’d like to hear about the seven attempts and the tests you went through. How did this experience affect you?

In the 2013-14 period, I was offered an investment plan with life insurance by my bank, which I eagerly accepted. Despite providing all the necessary documentation and a check to begin the application process, the bank unexpectedly returned my documents and money without a clear explanation. Subsequently, my brother attempted to secure insurance for me through various multinational companies. However, these companies initially accepted the payment but later refunded the money and closed the application, citing my disability as the reason. Undeterred, I approached several other multinational insurance companies for both life and health insurance. Unfortunately, all my attempts were met with rejection.

In some cases, I even made an initial payment that was later refunded without prior notice or explanation, requiring me to seek clarification from the authorities. I later discovered that my health insurance applications were consistently denied because of my 80% disability, despite my ability to afford the higher premium. It was disheartening to observe that individuals with chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension were granted insurance coverage at elevated premiums, while those with disabilities faced discrimination.

People with disabilities, like me, have a significant need for health insurance, but we often face various forms of discrimination. These issues include denial of insurance, inaccessible application processes, lack of standardized medical test criteria during underwriting, disparities in premium calculation, limited coverage for treatments and expenses, and restrictions to individuals with benchmark disabilities. Compounding these challenges is the widespread lack of awareness among insurance branches, agents, and other stakeholders about the unique needs and rights of people with disabilities in the realm of health insurance.

I understand that it must be challenging to face a situation where the new wheelchair is not insured, especially when even your phone is insured. How does this situation make you feel, and what specific concerns or worries does it raise for you?

My wheelchair, which is valued at Rs 4,26,000, posed a significant challenge when it came to getting it insured. I reached out to 22 different companies, and only nine responded. Ultimately, I chose to go with SBI General Insurance in July this year. Here it is worth mentioning that more than one billion people worldwide require an assistive product for daily function, but only one in ten have access. There is a huge unmet need for assistive technology (AT), an umbrella term covering the systems and services related to assistive products such as wheelchairs, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and prosthetics, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

At a societal level, it’s crucial to recognize that the prices of high-quality assistive products and services, along with associated expenses, create substantial barriers for individuals with disabilities. This issue is further exacerbated by the absence of insurance coverage for these essential devices. When there’s no insurance support, individuals with disabilities and their families often find themselves burdened with the entire financial cost, making these devices unaffordable for many.

For example, a standard manual wheelchair can range in price from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh, while the cost of a motorized wheelchair can vary from Rs 70,000 to Rs 18,00,000 or even more, depending on the specific requirements of the individual. These high costs force people with disabilities to go without these necessary products and services, preventing them from fully participating in productive, domestic, and community life. In this day and age, where insuring a mobile phone has become a straightforward process, it’s not only disheartening but also deeply frustrating to see that insuring a mobility device, necessary for disabled person’s well-being, remains a challenging ordeal. *

Could you walk us through the entire process of obtaining insurance for your wheelchair and yourself, including both the practical and emotional aspects, as well as any legal considerations?

In December 2022, the Delhi High Court instructed the IRDAI to direct private insurers to develop insurance products specifically designed for individuals with disabilities. The Insurance Development Regulatory Authority of India (IRDAI) has set forth specific obligations related to individuals with disabilities through various regulations and circulars. NCPEDP has been a consistent advocate for extending health insurance coverage to disabled individuals. In pursuit of this goal and to bring the challenges and concerns of the disabled community to the forefront for the IRDAI and other key stakeholders, we organized a consultation in Mumbai in August, in collaboration with the NHRC, Ministry of Social Justice, and Ministry of Finance.

During this event, we discussed the existing gaps in health insurance coverage for people with disabilities and emphasized the critical need for raising awareness and enhancing the capacity of insurance companies. The consultation played a significant role in shedding light on the challenges and obstacles faced by individuals with disabilities when it comes to securing adequate health insurance coverage.

Individuals with disabilities encounter numerous hurdles when seeking health insurance compared to their non-disabled counterparts. The response rate from insurance company representatives is notably lower, and disabled individuals often need to engage in persistent follow-ups through phone calls and emails to make progress. Insurance agencies also lag in promoting insurance products tailored for people with disabilities compared to other financial products.

What actions did you take to ensure that your concerns were genuinely heard, and can you reflect on whether your position played a role in having your voice amplified, while the average person might face greater challenges in being heard?

The initial step for any disabled person in acquiring health insurance is to ensure that both the disabled individual and their family are well-informed about their right to health, the availability of health insurance coverage for disabled persons, and the relevant legislations and policies in place for their welfare and benefits.

At a personal level, it is essential to maintain persistent follow-ups and ongoing communication with insurance executives. Documentation of the entire process is crucial, and utilizing social media channels can be a potent tool to amplify your message.

In my case, my understanding of the issue and the nature of my work greatly contributed to my persistence. The intricacies of insurance policies can be daunting, and sometimes even non-disabled individuals can find it challenging to navigate. Therefore, simplifying the insurance process would benefit everyone.

What insurance coverage options are available for the average person, and what are the essential steps they need to follow to secure these coverages? Please break this down for the readers to make it accessible and understandable for everyone.

The existing health insurance coverage for disabled persons covers all 21 categories of the disability and has the upper limit of Rs FIVE LAKHS only. But, individuals with disabilities should be mindful of the Delhi High Court’s ruling, which mandates the design of insurance products to facilitate health insurance coverage for them.

The court also addressed concerns about what were termed as “high” health insurance premiums and loading charges for disabled individuals. Furthermore, it emphasized that if any insured person has concerns about the premium amount, legal remedies are available to address such grievances.

What specific aspects should an ideal insurance policy cover for disabled individuals on a daily basis, and what are the underlying reasons for these crucial provisions?

Current insurance policies fall short in addressing the diverse requirements of individuals with disabilities, particularly concerning expenses related to therapeutic treatments, the purchase or repair of assistive technology, disability-specific outpatient tests, and more. In situations where individuals lack access to reasonably priced, secure, and efficient assistive products, their only option may be subpar devices that do not align with their needs or local conditions. To address this issue, there is a pressing need for regulations that facilitate access to reasonably priced, secure, and effective assistive products and the associated services.

Do developing nations have it? If so what steps should the Indian govt should ensure in their law or something which should be the norm?

Developing nations are implementing comparable policies, and it is imperative for the Indian Government to introduce comprehensive health insurance for all individuals with disabilities, aligning it with Ayushman Bharat and ensuring a minimum coverage of Rs 5 lakhs. Given the presence of existing laws and regulatory bodies, it is crucial for the Government of India to establish more stringent measures, making it mandatory for all insurance companies to comply and ensure that no person with a disability is denied health and life insurance coverage. Additionally, health insurance should encompass coverage for assistive devices. 

What valuable insights have you gained from your personal journey, and how do you envision the future of the insurance sector in light of your experiences?

As a densely populated and aging nation, we must strive to establish an inclusive ecosystem that ensures insurance accessibility for everyone. In my own encounters, I’ve noticed a significant lack of knowledge among customer service representatives regarding the products and services designed for individuals with disabilities. Their limited understanding often leads to uninformed and insensitive interactions. Therefore, there is a critical need for awareness and sensitivity training on disability issues for insurance company staff. Furthermore, there are issues related to website accessibility. To facilitate smoother navigation, it is essential to make website forms available in an accessible format for individuals with disabilities. Health insurance must extend its coverage to include assistive devices as essential necessities for individuals with disabilities. It’s vital to recognize that these devices are not luxuries but vital tools for daily living. To ensure the right to health for all, health insurance policies should encompass all types of disabilities.

As a future mass crusader in this scenario, what strategies do you envision implementing to drive this desired change on a broader scale?

We have always been focused on advocating for accessible health insurance for individuals with disabilities. Our strategy includes legislative advocacy, raising awareness, collaborating with stakeholders, promoting website accessibility, and conducting research. My vision is an inclusive insurance sector where everyone can access affordable and comprehensive coverage, regardless of their abilities.

About Arman Ali: He is a dedicated disability rights advocate with over 20 years of experience. Currently serving as the Executive Director of NCPEDP, he plays a pivotal role in fostering collaboration between government, industry, international agencies, and the voluntary sector to empower individuals with disabilities. Prior to this, he worked as an HR Specialist at Infosys, where his efforts were recognized with the Infosys Excellence Award for Inclusivity and Diversity. Arman’s contributions extend to his tenure as the Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi, where he facilitated essential partnerships and advancements in early intervention, rehabilitation, education, employment, advocacy, awareness, and legal aid for both children and people with disabilities. His commitment to this cause has earned him prestigious awards, including the Rotary Literacy Hero Award and the IBN7 Super Idol Award, recognizing his outstanding services towards the welfare of persons with disabilities.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the above interview are the personal opinions of the protagonist/protagonists for which The Think Pot is not liable in any manner. To share your views on an apolitical and intense subject like this you can reach out to us at mahimaasharma@thethinkpot.in