Gary and Jene Comfort decided two years ago that it was time for them to get long-term care insurance.
"We started to recognize that if one of us needed long-term care we could wipe out all our assets pretty easily," said Gary Comfort, now 60. His wife is 58.
Comfort, a retired Air Force officer who is now a research analyst for a nonprofit defense think tank, did what every expert says is essential before buying long-term care insurance: his homework.
He said it took three months of research before he felt ready to buy a policy. I think what this couple found could help you if you're in the market for this type of insurance.
For example, the Comforts felt it was vital to get inflation protection, even though it can double the cost of your premiums.
"Unless you have inflation protection, you might still find yourself having to spend down your assets," he said.
The cost of long-term care is eye-bulging. The average daily rate for nursing-home care this year was $168 for a private room and $143 for a semi-private room, according to a survey by MetLife, a provider of insurance and other financial services. The average hourly rate for home care was $37 for a licensed practical nurse and $18 for a home health aide.
But when it comes time to select the amount of coverage you want, base your decision on your family situation, not statistics, Comfort advises.
"The pamphlets will inform you that the average stay in a nursing home is relatively short -- two to three years. So lots of folks save costs by purchasing coverage for only a fixed period, perhaps five years," he said. "But those assumptions are based upon the 'average' stay."
For the Comforts, it was especially important to make sure they have enough coverage because they have an adult daughter with a disability.
"We must leave her some assets, and we could not afford to take the risk of going broke with a limited-term LTC policy," he said. "I think that one purchases insurance to guard against calamitous losses. So, since we can't be certain that we won't need many years of coverage, we bought policies that provide against that calamity."
The Comforts ended up buying a policy with a lifetime benefit.
One issue that was extremely important to the couple was picking a financially healthy insurance company.
As part of his research into long-term care insurance, Comfort said he checked the ratings of all the companies he was considering.
A number of rating services analyze the financial strength of insurance companies. Be sure to find out how the agency labels its highest ratings and the meaning of the ratings, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners recommends.
Here are just a few of the rating services the association suggests using:
* Moody's Investors Service, 212-553-0377 or www.moodys.com.
* Standard & Poor's Insurance Rating Services, 212-438-2400, www.standardpoor.com.
* Weiss Ratings, 800-289-9222, www.weissratings.com.
Finally, the Comforts ran into a problem that made them very uncomfortable.
"I was amazed at the reluctance of companies and their agents to let me see the actual policy contract," Gary Comfort said. "Each company would provide me some form of outline of coverage and tell me that after I bought the policy, I would receive the actual contract. I find that approach ridiculous for what is likely -- second only to one's home -- the largest financial expenditure of one's life."
Depending on the policy, consumers do have a right to cancel their contract after signing. In most states you have 30 days to cancel your contract, but in some you have less time. Check with your state insurance department to find out how long the "free look" period is. Regardless of the free-look period, Comfort said he wanted all information upfront before he signed on the dotted line.
"For example, many companies require that the plan of care be approved by a long-term care coordinator who is either named by the insurer or must be approved by the insurer," Comfort said. "In my view, such a coordinator could wind up becoming a restrictive gatekeeper. It is this type of detail that is often not in the sales brochures but is clearly spelled out in the contract."
In the end, this is what the Comforts bought: Jene Comfort's policy has a $150-a-day limit with 5 percent compounded inflation protection, a 60-day waiting period and an unlimited benefit period. Gary Comfort's policy is the same except that his daily benefit is $100 (he expects to use his military pension to make up any difference). Their combined premium is $3,555 per year.
If you want to be comfortable with your long-term care insurance, do what the Comforts did: research, research, research.
While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Readers can write to her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.