The Insurance Gap for Extreme Athletes

A wingsuit flier jumps from cliff near Gudvangen, Norway.
A wingsuit flier jumps from cliff near Gudvangen, Norway.Anders Blomqvist / Getty Images

They don wingsuits and soar off of cliffs; ascend vertical rock faces, sans ropes; balance on tightropes stretched thousands of feet above the ground. Watching the exploits of the current generation of extreme athletes, it's hard not to wonder: What do these guys do for health insurance? Before the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, it was nearly impossible for extreme athletes to acquire reasonably priced health insurance, because insurers had the power to arbitrarily increase the price of individual and small-group premiums. A company could issue inquiries about an athlete's lifestyle and increase his or her rates. Some sucked the cost; many opted out of health care altogether.

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The Affordable Care Act, which went into effect in 2013, requires all Americans — including those with high-risk, prone-to-injury lifestyles — to obtain health insurance or face tax penalties. (Those that cannot afford the coverage are eligible for subsidies.) The law also eliminated the personal-premium increases that often penalized professional athletes. Now, insurers are permitted to price plans based on five factors: age, geographic location, tobacco use, individual vs. family enrollment, and the amount of coverage purchased.

Nonetheless, insurance continues to pose a problem for many extreme athletes. For one, free solo climbers and BASE jumpers occupy a strange middle ground — they posses phenomenal health but are under constant threat of serious injury. They also live for their sports, not for cash. "Being a professional athlete, you are self-employed. As a climber, the bigger problem is that you don't make any money. You are basically homeless," says noted climber Alex Honnold. "In the past, as long as you are young and healthy, that was fine."

A growing number of solo athletes like Honnold are turning to Stride Health, a company developed by CEO Noah Lang. The service aggregates data from hundreds of thousands of medical claims to forecast health care costs across a diversity of insurance providers. Prior to developing Stride Health, Lang helped build a tech company for five years before becoming interested in the Affordable Care Act in 2013. He realized that there was a gap in the process of insurance acquisition, that the whole system is "coded" in the language of the actuaries who built it. For most people, it is an alien field.

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At Stride Health, people enter their information, and the software analyzes the personal variables to sift through a system that is not transparent or consumer-driven to determine the best coverage for the individual — across a diversity of insurance providers. And using it doesn't cost the client anything. "We get paid when someone gets enrolled in a program, like an old-school broker. The insurance companies pay us on the back end," says Lang.

The service helped athletes like Honnold find optimal insurance plans that take into consideration their mobile lifestyles, pay, the specific doctors they want to work with, and a variety of more subtle factors. "We are helping you make the decisions — if you qualify for a government subsidy, we will deliver it for you," Lang said.

Dean Potter, a top climber and BASE jumper who died in a crash earlier this month, navigated these same problems. "Most of my friends don't have a mailing address," Potter told Men's Journal in an interview shortly before his death. "It's always been a problem. I would go on long trips and sometimes my automatic payments failed. I would come home from some of the most radical adventures, and the health insurance I thought I had had been discontinued. So I've had lapses at critical times."  

Sadly, like most extreme athletes, Potter did not have life insurance. "I don't even think it's possible to get as a professional climber," says Honnold, who also does not have life coverage. That's because life insurance companies can still issue Informal Inquiry Forms, which include a "hazardous activity" section that asks if you engage in sports like mountain climbing, bungee jumping, ultralight flying, motorcycle racing, or "other." A "yes" almost guarantees highly expensive coverage or no coverage at all.

Which brings us back to Potter. The man died pushing the limits, living the kind of life that most can only fantasize about. Stride Health helped him with health coverage. But for his loved ones, navigating the very real absence of life insurance will be a difficult consequence of living the dream.

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