Business owner Casey Armstrong brings the “Been There” to health insurance.
By C. Ballatore
As business owner of Armstrong Fairway Insurance, Casey Armstrong admits, insurance doesn’t seem like a very glamorous life. But the fashion savvy, social, likes-to-have-fun woman laughs, “I know it sounds boring, but I love insurance. It’s very gratifying when I can help replace peoples’ confusion and stress with understanding. You can see the appreciation in peoples’ eyes.”
For Armstrong, insurance isn’t just a job. She understands that when you get sick, the last thing on your mind is your insurance. “When something major happens to you, you’re overwhelmed by the complications of simply getting up and taking a shower. So dealing with your insurance and navigating through your benefits, medical groups, certain doctors, specialists… getting through the whole system is very, very confusing.”
Armstrong understands it so well because she’s been there. Working for her father’s insurance agency since graduating from high school, Armstrong entered the field at a very young age early in her career. When she was only 21 years old, she suffered a stroke that left her right side paralyzed.
Armstrong recalls, “I had arrived at my apartment, got up the stairs, fell down, and couldn’t get back up without falling down. I literally walked around the perimeter of the apartment until I found a phone. I had no idea what was happening to me. The ambulance took me to the closest hospital with a working MRI machine. At such a young age, stroke was not the obvious diagnosis. I was transferred the next day to Loma Linda, where I was finally diagnosed with a stroke.”
“I spent the next six weeks in the hospital in an intense rehabilitation unit. Once your brain cells die, you have to make new connections. I had to learn how to walk, talk and take care of myself again. The next year was physical, occupational and speech therapy three times a week.”
After returning from her illness, she says, “I pretty much refused to write anything down for two years…I carried around a tape recorder and I just tape recorded everything that I had to write down. Even phone numbers I had to remember.”
She finally broke one day when a longtime client refused to write his own insurance application. “He said, ‘That’s what I’m paying you for.’” Armstrong says, “I just sat there in tears. I was so upset he was making me write with my left hand. And it was chicken scratch, barely legible.”
That was the breakthrough for Armstrong to start her recovery. “I just thought everything was going to magically come back one day, as quickly as it went,” she says. Once I realized it was never coming back, I figured out I was going to have to do everything with my left hand.”
Today, at a remarkably young age, Armstrong has ramped up a business that rivals decades-long veterans. She first started out as a health insurance, life, and Medicare business. Two years ago she teamed up with existing business Fairway, to be able to offer property and casual. Armstrong-Fairway now has 10 agents offering an array of insurance services.
Health insurance remains Armstrong’s specialty, however. She works hard to stay current with the new health legislation and changes in Medicare. In 2006, Armstrong was elected president of the Inland Empire Association of Health Underwriters, in which capacity she meets with her colleagues once a month to discuss insurance issues and common concerns.
She travels to Washington DC and Sacramento every year to lobby on particular causes. Often, she finds herself on opposite sides of the fence of her industry. “On some changes, other insurance agents may differ with me, but some of the new laws have been good for the community, and the nation.”
She cites the over-age dependent coverage until a child is 26, as an example. Another is that preventive medicine is now covered 100%. “Someone who lives paycheck to paycheck can’t afford a $40 co-pay to go get an annual checkup. They can’t take off work and pay that. So the preventive service helps them be healthy, and hopefully that will help level out our rates over time.”
She adds, judiciously, “The problems go very deep. One answer isn’t going to be an answer to it all.”
Almost every business has been hit by the recession, and Armstrong-Fairway Insurance is no different. Armstrong comments on the homeowner insurance business, saying, “The number of houses being lost to the bank equals the number of new homeowners each month, so we’re basically working harder to break even.”
Nevertheless, Armstrong-Fairway is expanding – Armstrong’s partner, Lance Lane, was literally breaking down a wall as we spoke. They plan to increase their office space by 1,000 square feet. “We’re going on faith,” says Armstrong. That plan’s worked for her so far.
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Armstrong shows her under-construction office. Overcoming a stroke at the age of 21, Casey says the average person can’t really tell her right side is paralyzed, though there will always be a few things she can’t do. “I’ll never gain the fine motor skills back. So I don’t eat or write with my right hand. I can use a knife, but it’s difficult. I only really type with one hand. I put the other hand up there just for looks.” When asked how she contended with so much at such a young age, Armstrong admits, “I was angry for the first five years, but now I’m so thankful for those challenges because they made me who I am today.”