Bupa International in the United Kingdom has moved into an area to fill a void, in perhaps the most important, and frightening category of health insurance - cancer. Until recently, providing cover for cancer has been seen by some insurers as unduly risky. Bupa unveiled a plan whereby former sufferers of cancer, and other serious conditions, can be insured against the cost of treating a recurrence - although at a heavy premium loading.
In insurance industry-speak this is cover for pre-existing conditions, often regarded by providers as a no-go area for cancer.
Bupa's expat customers will be able to apply for cover for more than 60 common conditions they may already have had. These include cancer, hypertension, asthma, acne, high cholesterol, hay fever, and kidney stones.
The benefit is being offered as part of Bupa World Health Options, a plan introduced in 2009, which was the first significant policy innovation by the international provider in more than 20 years. As it unveiled the benefit last month, the company published findings of a poll among 12,262 people around the world. It showed that three times as many people were worried about getting cancer than any other disease.
Dementia and heart attack were the other big worries. But they evoked little of the fear compared with cancer.
The move to cover for pre-existing conditions comes as doctors increasingly view a range of formerly lethal diseases as either survivable or persisting in chronic form, allowing patients to conduct themselves much as they did before disease struck.
Under the Bupa scheme, every disease is individually assessed. Policyholders have to be free of the relevant disease for a widely variable period, and their premium is then increased to cover the assessed risk.
Dr Sneh Khemka, the company's medical director, said that for most types of cancer expats who were previous sufferers would have to be free of the disease for five years before they could be accepted. The exceptions were breast cancer and lymphoma, where the period was doubled to 10 years.
However, the premium loading was modest, he claimed. The loading in breast cancer cases could be as low as £260, and for skin cancer £65. In the event of the disease recurring, all treatment costs would be covered subject to high annual limits, usually £2 million.