Australia's first challenge to discrimination by insurers against people with a mental illness

Australia's first challenge to discrimination by insurers against people with a mental illness

Monday, 26 October 2015

Photo of Ella

A young Melbourne woman, in an Australian-first discrimination case, is challenging an insurance company’s decision to reject her travel insurance claim after she was hospitalised with depression.

Ella Ingram, represented by Victoria Legal Aid, had no pre-existing illness when she was diagnosed with major depression in February 2012. She was 17 years old. On medical advice Ms Ingram had to cancel an overseas school trip she had booked in late 2011.

On 27 October the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal will hear that Ms Ingram’s insurer, QBE Insurance (Australia) Ltd, rejected her claim to refund travel expenses totalling $4,292.48 when it relied on a general exclusion clause in their policy. This states that cover will not be provided when a claim is based on a member of the travelling party suffering from any mental illness.

Equality Law Program Manager Melanie Schleiger said ‘insurers can legally discriminate against someone with a mental illness in certain situations, but the problem is they won’t tell us how they make these decisions. This makes it impossible to determine if their decision is legal.’

Ms Ingram said that she was already feeling stigmatised about her depression, and felt it ‘should have been treated in the same way as someone who accidentally breaks their leg.'

‘Initially this was just about getting the money back but then it became so much more when I realised how widespread this issue is. I didn’t ask to be depressed and I don’t think this is fair. It’s not just about travel insurance – it’s peoples’ lives.’

Ella Ingram

Ms Ingram is alleging that QBE’s blanket exclusion of claims based on mental illness is not justified.

‘An insurer’s decision must be based on reasonable actuarial and statistical data,’ Ms Schleiger said. ‘They also have to consider other relevant factors. This might include the type of illness, its severity, how much it impacts a person, and their treatment or recovery plan.

‘We want insurers to consider a person’s individual circumstances, look at all the evidence available and be more transparent about how they make decisions. It’s about being sure that people with a mental illness are not being unlawfully discriminated against.

‘As a young person with a mental illness, Ella has been very bold and brave in taking legal action against a multi-national insurance company.’

Supporting this test case are beyondblue and Mental Health Australia, long-time advocates for change in the way people affected by depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions are treated by the insurance industry.

‘People continue to approach us claiming to have been treated unfairly,’ said beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman.

‘Nearly half of all Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage in their life.

‘Many have been confronted with higher premiums and more exclusions on their insurance policies and, in many cases, have been refused cover.

beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman.

‘These people may have experienced psychological distress for short-term life situations such as financial or relationship difficulties. They could have symptoms that have not returned for many years, or may no longer require treatment. Yet their claims could still be rejected, premiums increased or cover refused.’

Ms Harman called on insurers to ensure they are using contemporary evidence and data and individual circumstances instead of making broad assumptions about a person’s ability and functioning and, therefore, risk profile.

A decision by ​the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal may not be known for months.  

How we can help

If you think you have been treated unfairly by an insurance company because of a mental illness, find out more about how to get help.    

Media ​

If you have a media enquiry please contact Communications Co-ordinator Paula Wilson (03) 9269 0620 or 0438 612 289. 



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