UK government urged to investigate insurer ‘discrimination’ against mentally ill

Charities and MPs demand response after insurance companies accused of penalising people with depression and anxiety.

Norman Lamb MP

MPs and campaigners have launched an urgent appeal for the government to take action after the Guardian revealed insurers are preventing people with mental illnesses from getting access to cover.

Individuals who have suffered mild depression or anxiety, or one-off mental health episodes, have been consistently refused life and other kinds of insurance, adding to their financial insecurity.

Dozens of customers told the Guardian they had been refused cover based on long-distant episodes of depression or if their medical report mentioned suicidal thoughts or self-harm. They said they were denied cover even when they had no physical health complaints.

Charities and campaigners said this was worrying and accused insurers of working from an outdated understanding of mental health. The concern is that insurers are dismissing customers with depression and anxiety to minimise risk and boost profits.

Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs have joined a growing number of voices calling for action. The shadow minister for mental health, Barbara Keeley, said: “It is unacceptable for insurers to discriminate flatly against people with mental health conditions or clobber them with higher premiums, particularly for mild conditions or historic episodes … Labour is calling for the government to investigate, as a matter of urgency.”

The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb launched a Commons early day motion, a parliamentary device used to highlight an issue. Lamb said these practices amount to a serious discrimination and urged the government, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Financial Conduct Authority to look into it.

“These alleged practices are deeply shocking and, in my view, amount to an outrageous discrimination against people with mental ill health … the government must look into this as a matter of urgency and stamp out any loopholes in the law which are allowing these practices to continue,” he said.

Gaps in legislation mean customers have little protection against this form of prejudice, according to charities. Michael Henson-Webb, head of legal at the mental health charity Mind, said that the current definition of disability under the Equality Act does not cover everyone with a mental health problem, making it “difficult for individuals with mental health problems and their legal advisers to clearly determine their rights”.

The motion launched by Lamb has already been backed by the Labour MP Luciana Berger. She said: “The government has time and again told us how it is committed to equality for mental health. If they are serious they must act now to end this wholly unacceptable and discriminatory practice.”

She added: “It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that insurance companies are obeying both the letter and the spirit of anti-discrimination laws.”

Prof Wendy Burn, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It is deeply worrying to hear that insurance companies are making sweeping judgments about people without true understanding of their condition.”

The Guardian has also heard allegations from new complainants. Tony Blair’s former director of communications Alastair Campbell, an ambassador for Time to Change, said: “Whenever my partner Fiona and I have engaged with insurance, it is harder and more expensive for me than for her, because I have been open about having had mental illness, something she has not had.”

He added: “People are judged on past mental health problems differently to how they are judged on past physical health problems. It encourages people not to open up, which in turn means the stigma and taboo are reinforced. It is there in black and white in the NHS constitution – there should be parity between physical and mental health. But this scandal is just one more example of how far the reality is from the words in law.”

Dozens of others spoke out on Twitter. One person said: “[The same] happened to me. I was denied [insurance] as I struggled after a divorce and sought help from GP, so it was on my medical records.” Another said: “My husband can’t get life insurance because of his depression … we have six children. I’m just glad if anything happens to me my family is covered. Just disgraceful.”

Helen Undy, the head of external affairs at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said: “One in four of us will experience a mental health problem each year, and by some estimates this rises to almost half of us across a lifetime. So if the insurance market isn’t working for all these people, then it really isn’t working at all.”

A treasury spokesperson said: “It is wrong for people to be refused insurance purely on the basis of a mental health condition. Insurance companies should follow both the best-practice guidelines from the Association of British Insurers, and equality law to ensure that full cover should be offered wherever possible.”


Link to Guardian article here