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Looking closer at the role of life insurance in military suicides

By By Alan Zarembo

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12 2013 12:23 p.m. MDT

A 2004 study at the University of Chicago found that the suicide rate quadrupled after the initial two-year exclusion period. In 2010, researchers analyzing insurance data from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea found a suicide spike immediately after the 13-month exclusion period in those countries.

That study also showed that policyholders who died of suicide were insured for greater sums than those who died of natural causes.

Paul Yip, the lead author and director of suicide prevention research at the University of Hong Kong, said the results suggest that having more life insurance can make suicide more tempting.

Extending the exclusion period would save lives, he said, citing the example of Japan, which lengthened its exclusion to three years in response to rising suicide claims during the 1990s. According to a 2011 analysis published by one of its biggest carriers, Nippon Life Insurance, policyholders with longer exclusions committed suicide at slightly lower rates, even after coverage kicked in.

“With an exclusion period, you are buying time,” Yip said. “You have more opportunity to come in and change the situation.”

He said it is something the U.S. military should consider, especially because significant numbers of its suicides occur relatively soon after enlistment.

Though suicides are extremely rare during basic training, when recruits are under tight supervision, the rate quickly accelerates.

Data from the Army, which has the highest rate, show that a quarter of the 1,155 suicides between 2009 and 2012 held the rank of private first class or lower — positions dominated by soldiers with less than two years of service. More than 70 percent of those had never deployed to war.

But other experts noted that studies based on private insurance holders — a self-selecting group that tends to be well-off socioeconomically — may have little meaning for the military, where insurance is essentially standard-issue.

Ronald Maris, a suicide expert at the University of South Carolina, said he doubted life insurance had much, if any, effect on suicide rates in the military.

“Most people who commit suicide are impulsive, and it’s often related to acute stress,” Maris said. “I don’t think they’re that calculating.”

Jacqueline Garrick, the director of the Defense Department’s Suicide Prevention Office, said that most suicide victims were not of sound mind and any restrictions on coverage would be unfair to their families.

“Family members should not be punished or penalized because of a medical condition of their loved one,” she said.

Still, some families are left to grapple with the issue.

Sam Smith, a pipe fitter from Rootstown, Ohio, who was a sergeant in the Army National Guard, was found to have post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq in 2005. He used to tell his wife that he was worth more dead than alive to her and their four daughters.

“He said the girls would be set,” Kami Smith recalled. “We wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”

“I would tell him, the girls need a dad, and that’s not funny.”

As his distress worsened over the years, he continued to quip about the life insurance policy.

By the spring of 2011, he was questioning his marriage and falling behind on house payments. The bank launched foreclosure proceedings.

He killed himself with a handgun that July at age 33.

The $400,000 spared his family enormous financial hardship but nothing more.

“With everything swirling around in his mind, I know he was thinking at least they’re going to be OK,” his widow said. “But we’re not OK.”

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©2013 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MILITARY-INSURANCE

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