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Travel insurance covers other medical conditions. Why not mental illness?

Nearly half of all Australians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. So why on earth doesn’t travel insurance cover it?

High school student Ella Ingram couldn’t wait to travel to New York with her Media Studies class. She was looking forward to going to a Broadway Show and the NBC studios during the Year 12 trip, and she pulled shifts at the local bakery to help cover the costs of the flight and accommodation.

“It was a really big deal,” the young Melbourne woman told ABC’s 7:30 programme. “I was so excited.”

But when she became seriously unwell shortly before the trip, a specialist told her she wasn’t well enough to travel.

That’s when she learned she wouldn’t be able to recover the $4,200 already laid down on travel expenses by her family — even though she had taken out travel insurance to cover any cancellations.

Ella (centre) and her mother (left) were shocked to hear their insurance policy didn’t cover depression. Screenshot: ABC/7:30

The reason why was buried in the fine print of her policy: The insurance giant refused to cover mental illness. That meant that Ella’s condition — serious depression that left her suicidal and hospitalised at one point — wasn’t covered, even though she had developed her condition  after taking out the policy.

“I just felt absolutely devastated,” Ella said, adding that she’s spent all her childhood savings on the dream trip.

Now the brave young woman is taking on the insurance company, QBE, demanding that it treat mental illness like other conditions when it comes to insurance.

The matter, which is currently before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), could have implications for many other insurance providers who similarly exclude mental illness from their travel insurance policies; 33 of 35 policies had a similar approach in one survey by Choice magazine, a statistic that suggests the practice is widespread.

7:30 mental illness insurance
“We’re saying that this is unfair, that it’s unlawful because they’re excluding people on the basis of mental illness in an unreasonable way,” Victorian Legal Aid spokesperson Melanie Schleiger told the ABC. Image: iStock

The ABC’s 7:30 program last night talked to experts who said the exclusion of mental illness from these policies is discriminatory.

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“We’re saying that this is unfair, that it’s unlawful because they’re excluding people on the basis of mental illness in an unreasonable way,” Victorian Legal Aid spokesperson Melanie Schleiger told the ABC.

And we say that insurers should treat mental illnesses in the same way that they approach physical illnesses, so looking at the illness on a case-by-case basis, considering the severity of the mental illness, the treatment that the person’s receiving, how they’re responding to that treatment.”

Mental Health Australia has asked for insurance companies to recognise that there are degrees of mental illness, rather than excluding all mental illnesses from travel cover as a blanket rule.

“That’s part of the problem is that insurance companies treat mental illness as if it’s one thing,” its CEO Frank Quinlan told 7:30.

“We had a case reported to us, for instance, of a gentleman who had sought advice from a psychologist in relation to his career planning, but later was refused insurance when he had to report to the insurance company that he had seen a psychologist.”

Pensive/dreaming woman on the beach
Mental illness advocacy organisations estimate that tens of thousands of Australians’ conditions could have been unfairly excluded from travel insurance. Image: iStock

According to 7:30, QBE alleges in documents filed to VCAT that providing coverage for trips cancelled because of mental illness would be too expensive, given the widespread nature of mental illness. According to that line of thought, covering mental illness would mean driving up premiums for everyone.

But not covering mental illness mean that potentially tens of thousands of Australians have already been denied the cover they need — and Ella, now a 21-year-old nursing student, doesn’t think that’s fair.

“I wanted to take it as far as I could when I found out how widespread this issue is and how many people it is affecting. It’s not just travel insurance, it’s people’s lives,” she said.

“They’re being refused that just because they have a mental illness. I don’t think that it’s fair.”