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Getting Your Hands On Your M.I.B. Records!
July 16, 2003

The Medical Information Bureau

If you have ever applied as an individual for life, health or disability insurance, then chances are you're in a database at the Medical Information Bureau (MIB). Established in 1902, this Boston-based company provides about 600 life insurance companies -- many of which also offer health or disability coverage -- with medical information about individuals. In return, member companies report information to the MIB. It's a way for insurers to compare notes on applicants without having to contact one another directly. The MIB says it was established to combat fraud by providing a place where insurance companies can double-check the information provided by people applying for coverage.

For example, a man with high blood pressure may want to buy a life insurance policy, but he's aware that mentioning his medical condition means his application will be denied. By checking with the MIB, a life insurance company can make sure that the information provided on the application is accurate. If the MIB files show he has high blood pressure, then the life insurance company can dig deeper before issuing a policy.

Insurance companies pay a fee to become members of the MIB, and they also pay a fee every time they request information from the MIB's databases. Member companies agree to report to the MIB any medical conditions that might be of interest to other insurance company underwriters. What kinds of medical conditions? "Almost any medical condition you could think of," says Terry Philbrook, underwriting manager for UNUM Insurance Co., one of the largest disability insurers in the country. Common colds are out, but high blood pressure, back strain and abnormal lab results -- about 230 different conditions and test results -- could end up in the MIB database. Having a record in the MIB doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be denied coverage, but it could mean you'll pay higher rates.

You're supposed to be notified when you apply that the insurance company plans to check the MIB for any record of you, but that notification may be buried in fine print. If you want to know for sure, ask the agent when you fill out the application. And if you know you have a medical condition that might nix your application, think long and hard before applying for individual coverage. Once the database has a record showing you've been denied, it'll be harder for you to get any kind of individual life, health or disability coverage.

In certain circumstances, you could end up with an MIB record even if you have group coverage. Members of very small groups (less than 10 people, say), late enrollees and people who request more coverage than usual may all end up being treated as though they were applying for individual coverage. Hence, any information about medical conditions on your group application could be reported to the MIB.

Getting your hands on your MIB records

The MIB database may keep people honest when they're filling out their applications, but it is far from fail-safe. According to the MIB, it has records on only one or two out of every 10 people who apply for individual insurance. Nonetheless, its database does contain files on about 16 million individuals. How many of those records are inaccurate? The exact number is hard to determine, but the MIB estimates that about 3% of its records contain mistakes. "We had 650 people last year who sought corrections," says Jim Corbett, vice president of the MIB.

"One of the best ways to ensure the accuracy of our database is to encourage disclosure, and to correct it where information is wrong," says Corbett. About 150,000 people request their MIB records every year, a rather paltry number when you consider the total size of the database. While the MIB has made efforts to raise awareness about its existence among consumers, it's still a little-known entity.

The MIB is similar to consumer credit reporting services. For instance, it purges records that have been in the system for more than seven years. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have a right to see and correct the information the MIB has on you. Some states have also adopted laws specifically dealing with the confidentiality of medical records; the MIB and member companies doing business in those states would also be subject to those laws. "Most companies will comply with both laws," says Corbett. "It's easier to have one standard."

Member companies of the MIB also have to comply with the bureau's own privacy standards. "They pledge to use the information only [within that] member company and only for the purposes of underwriting an application or for looking at a claim," says Corbett.

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