Life Wellbeing Mental health insurance problems to be exacerbated by COVID-19

Mental health insurance problems to be exacerbated by COVID-19

There are concerns for Australians' mental health during the pandemic. Image: ABC News/Emma Machan
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Systemic problems with the way life and income protection insurers offer policies and assess the claims of people with mental health conditions needs to be fixed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, advocates claim.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a community legal service that specialises in policy advocacy, says people with mental health problems face “significant barriers” in obtaining and using insurance.

“We think the mental health impacts of the pandemic highlight the need for scrutiny of the current practices of life insurers,” said senior solicitor Ellen Tilbury.

“More people who are seeking help now … could find their ability to obtain insurance in the future affected.”

An ABC examination of 13 major insurance providers found that all have blanket mental health exemptions on their basic income protection policies.

“Exclusions rarely differentiate between mental health conditions,” Ms Tilbury said.

“A past episode of mild anxiety, for example, can lead to cover being excluded for all types of mental illness.”

Ellen Tilbury says blanket mental health exclusions could breach Australian discrimination laws. Photo: ABC/Ellen Tilbury

‘Shocked’ to be refused cover

Tamsin applied for total and permanent disability (TPD) and income protection insurance at the end of 2019.

She was “shocked and upset” when her superannuation provider refused to cover her for any mental health conditions because she had seen a psychologist.

The sessions were initially for workplace stress and later for support when Tamsin’s father was diagnosed with, and subsequently died, from cancer.

“It made me feel stigmatised for the fact I had sought counselling for what I would consider an everyday life situation,” she said.

When Tamsin questioned the broad exemptions, she was told if she did not seek mental health support for three years and applied again the exclusions would most likely be removed.

“This has made me feel like if I do need support for normal life situations, I will actively not seek it because I will be worried about my insurance,” she said

Tamsin is now working with PIAC to get the mental health exemptions removed from her policy.

The legal centre argues broad mental health exclusions could breach Australian discrimination laws.

“If I had disclosed a physical illness, they would have sought further information to find out if the condition was ongoing,” she said.

“There is no evidence to suggest I have an ongoing mental health issue; it was just assumed because I disclosed a few psychologist appointments.”

Australians’ mental health deteriorated during COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic put enormous pressure on people’s mental health last year.

Medicare data showed GPs prepared record numbers of mental health treatment plans in 2020.

Over the course of the pandemic, calls to SANE Australia’s help centre for complex mental health issues rose 78 per cent and they have not abated.

SANE Australia believes blanket mental health exclusions are driven by stigma.

“It implies people with mental health issues are more likely to make claims and are less likely to participate in the workforce,” said SANE Australia deputy chief executive Michelle Blanchard.

“We need to be ensuring people who are experiencing mental health issues have the same access to products that support their economic security as other people in the community.”