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By Chris Huntley
July 5, 2020
Money; Getty Images

Two months ago, the nation was on lockdown due to coronavirus and getting life insurance was more challenging and more costly than usual. Now, with restrictions lifting in many states, life-insurance prices and processes are largely returning to normal — and are even changing for the better.

The most important change is the return of the medical exam. It’s an important requirement for the approval of most life insurance policies — and one that can help reduce premiums, too. The exams are back not only because stay-at-home orders have been lifted, say industry experts, but because exam changes driven by coronavirus have made consumers more comfortable.

Read on to learn three ways in which coronavirus is changing shopping for life insurance, even compared with when the pandemic first hit. The news is mostly good, but we also cover how insurers are still slowing or blocking writing policies for certain consumers who are considered at high risk for the virus. A final caveat: the worsening of coronavirus infections in some states might reverse some of the positive developments in some regions, at least temporarily.

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Medical exams are back, and safer

One of the best ways to save on life insurance is to buy a policy that requires taking an exam. While “no-exam” alternatives are available — and were virtually all you were able to buy this spring due to the coronavirus — such policies typically cost 10% to 30% more than those that include an examination.

The exam process is simple enough. A licensed nurse or medical examiner comes to the applicant’s home to obtain samples of the applicant’s blood and urine and to measure their height, weight, and blood pressure.

During the lockdowns, though, examiners were either not allowed or unwilling to visit homes, or applicants were not willing to host them. Now, however, those staffers are back at work, and with some adjustments that aim to make exams safer in a time of pandemic.

First, masks are required for both the applicant and examiner. In addition, Exam One, one of the largest nationwide examination companies, requires the applicant to pass a precautionary screening questionnaire prior to the exam. The questions include whether the applicant has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is showing common symptoms of the disease, and whether they’ve abided by travel restrictions where they live.

Jennifer Fitzgerald, CEO and co-founder of Policygenius, says the industry’s modifications have worked. “We’re getting back to business as usual,” said Fitzgerald. “Consumer sentiment has improved with respect to having exams at home, which was less the case in March and April.”

Innovation is underway

The life-insurance industry is often slow to adjust and innovate to new market conditions — as I can personally attest from having been an insurance agent for the past 16 years. When it comes to coronavirus, though, companies are pivoting more quickly than usual. The result are some safer and more affordable ways to buy life insurance.

Take, for example, the simple task of signing a policy. While acceptance of electronic signatures is commonplace in many industries — this is 2020, after all — many life insurers have not been set up to deliver and receive policies digitally. Now there’s an industry-wide effort to address that shortcoming, according to Brian Greenberg, founder of Quoteplicity. “Companies that have not allowed electronic delivery have now begun to allow it,” he says. As an example, he cites the Independent Order of Foresters, which recently began delivering policies digitally and dropping the requirement for a physical signature to confirm receipt of the policy.

As well as increasing efficiency, reduced shipping of documents provides reassurance in an era in which people increasingly resist touching anything that’s previously been touched by others.

There’s also innovation aimed at improving “no exam” offerings, which haven’t gone away despite the return of traditional policies that require examinations. One welcome trend is greater flexibility in the coverage limits for examless policies.

Traditionally, coverage under a no-exam policy is typically capped at $500,000 of coverage. Now most companies have raised that limit to $1 million to $2 million or more. In the case of John Hancock, the limit has soared to an incredible $5 million, provided you’ve had a physical, including lab testing, completed within the past 12 months.

At least one product is pledged to offer a higher coverage limit for no-exam policies while also making them more competitive in price. Policygenius recently announced a new term life insurance plan called SimplySelect, which allows you to buy up to $2 million of coverage without an exam. CEO Jennifer Fitzgerald says the new plan requires a longer health questionnaire than most policies, but is priced to compete, or even beat, the rates of policies that require exams.

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Some policy delays and restrictions endure

Not every consumer can yet escape the effect of coronavirus when shopping for life insurance.

Seniors are most affected by enduring restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Several companies are now postponing applications from individuals who are over 70 years old, especially if they have “high-risk” medical conditions such as COPD, obesity, or heart disease.

Anthony Martin, CEO of Choice Mutual, is an expert in “final expense” insurance, a type of simplified-acceptance life insurance mostly purchased by seniors. Martin says he’s seen age limits decrease at several companies. “A lot of carriers have reduced their maximum age to 75 or 80,” said Martin. “For example, Transamerica and Forresters both reduced their age limit from 85 to 75.”

But Martin says not all companies have reduced their age limits, so if you’re a senior, the best advice would be to shop around and be sure to request a quote from an independent agent.

Another enduring restriction relates to foreign travel. Fitzgerald of Policygenius points out that “many companies are postponing applications for 30 days if you’ve traveled outside the U.S. recently or are contemplating travel.”

Approval will also be delayed if you seek to get a policy when you actually have coronavirus. Most companies now require completion of a coronavirus questionnaire, much like that required by the testing lab Exam One, before a policy is approved. Approval will be challenging should you be suffering from symptoms of the virus.

The continuing uncertainty and inconsistency due to coronavirus makes it wiser than ever at the moment to shop around for life insurance, and specifically with an independent agency or website. These sellers have access to multiple companies so even if one can’t insure you, they will likely find another company who can. Our listing of best life insurance for 2020 includes two such options, Health IQ and Policygenius.

Chris Huntley is a life insurance agent, the founder of Insuranceblogbychris, and president of Lifeinsuranceshoppingreviews. The views in this story are his opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of MONEY.

More from Money:

What to Know About Buying Life Insurance for the First Time

Best Life Insurance Companies of 2020

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