Oz insurer found guilty of ‘direct discrimination’

Oz insurer found guilty of ‘direct discrimination’

In a landmark case that could have knock-on effects on the global travel insurance industry, a 21-year old Melbourne woman recently won her challenge against Australian insurer QBE, which she accused of failing to honour her travel insurance. The woman, who had suffered from depression for a number of years, had become too unwell to travel

QBE’s travel insurance does not currently cover trip cancellation because of mental illness and this includes if the mental illness is not a pre-existing condition. However, in the first ruling of its kind last December, Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) member Anne Dea found Ella Ingram’s depression to be a disability and QBE to have ‘engaged in direct discrimination’. QBE was found to have breached the Equal Opportunities Act when it issued a policy with the mental health exclusion and when it refused indemnity based on that clause and was ordered to pay travel costs and AUS$15,000 in compensation.

Ms Ingram said she decided to launch legal action when she considered how many other people might find themselves in a similar position to herself and described how people had taken to social media to thank her. “For me, I thought it was ridiculous that I couldn’t claim my trip,” she said. “I would like for the insurance companies to treat mental illness the same as any other physical illness and for them to not just base their reasons on stereotyping.”

In response, QBE issued a statement that said it understood the concerns and empathised with Australians suffering from mental illnesses but defended its position: “The general insurance industry relies on insurers being able to price products appropriately to reflect the risks and, as such, the law in each jurisdiction recognises insurers are entitled to discriminate on this basis.” The company added: “This determination is specific to the facts of this case, including technical data, and the jurisdiction is limited to Victoria.”
To cover mental health, QBE said premiums are likely to be higher in general. “With a significant number of Australians suffering from mental health illnesses … to provide travel insurance cover for mental health illness would significantly increase the cost of travel insurance premiums for the whole community.”

Insurance Council of Australia chief executive Rob Whelan said the council would take time to consider VCAT's decision, adding: “The provision of travel insurance for financial losses related to mental health is challenging due to differences in how mental health conditions are diagnosed, categorised and treated.” He added: “Insurers are actively seeking updated data to improve their ability to quantify the risk associated with a range of mental health conditions.”

Meanwhile, QBE called for more discussion and co-operation on mental health issues: “We believe there is a strong need for wider engagement to discuss the growing issue of mental health illnesses in the community, including insurance and QBE is committed to continuing to work with the insurance body, the Insurance Council of Australia. We would welcome further engagement with the medical profession, other government and non-government agencies to work together on this fundamental community issue which affects so many.”