Editorial: Should have said so?

Last updated 10:28 08/11/2012
Meg Bourke
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
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OPINION: So this is the bit where BNZ Life can jut its chin out and declare that, yes, it has cut back more than half of a terminally ill Bluff woman's payout and she deserved it.

Because, see, she didn't disclose that 45 years earlier she was given antidepressants as a young teenager dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse.

It can then explain how its actions were reasonable, not at all weaselly, and certainly not something that an appalled community should chalk up as another case of insurance industry bastardry.

Meg Bourke had been abused as a 10-year-old and a doctor had given her antidepressants when she was 14. Many years later she ticked "no" on her insurance form application when asked if she had ever had a mental illness, central nervous system disorder, stress, depression or anxiety.

Now she has spent far too many of her last days on this planet trying, and failing, to get her insurers to accept it isn't exactly irrelevant that as far as she knew she had never been diagnosed with the "condition" of depression, as distinct from the state of occasionally feeling depressed.

What's more she had not known - and therefore could hardly have disclosed - that her doctor had mentioned anxiety and stress on her record. This, she maintains, did not amount to a medical diagnosis in any case.

Look, if everything on that application form was automatically to be regarded as a condition if something was done to alleviate it, then surely you have to conclude that any steps any of us may ever have taken to help ourselves feel less depressed - or stressed or anxious - is a case of treating a pre-existing medical condition that we must all be sure to inform our insurers about.

As for the relevance of antidepressants to cancer, BNZ Life might, perhaps, point to research that has found a modest association between the drugs and an increased risk of ovarian cancer, though conventional wisdom appears to be that this is merely enough to warrant further study.

If the insurance industry is treating any of this as reason to chop back coverage to any woman who has ever taken antidepressants and then developed ovarian cancer, then it needs to say so loud and clear. Feel free to discuss among yourselves whether you believe it has given you a fair-enough heads-up about this.

What the company has said, so far, is that having taken those pills was a "material fact" that Mrs Bourke should have disclosed. BNZ Insurance chief operating officer Campbell Chambers says the company advises customers to disclose all facts that might influence an insurer.

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And what might influence them? They'll be the judges of that.

Insurance policies are labyrinths of fine print that is later brandished as an excuse to decline, or haggle over, a payout.

The amount of prescience expected of people filling out an insurance form can be crazy. Earlier this year a man diagnosed with rectal cancer was unable to make a planned trip but was denied a travel insurance payout because he hadn't disclosed that he had previously been treated for bleeding piles and suffered from haemorrhoids. But with hindsight, they were symptoms of a pre-existing condition excluded under the policy.

Sometimes you can get somewhere by fighting back against the industry's more wilful tactics. Sadly, people like Meg Bourke so often run out of time and patience. As for the rest of us, we might want to check out our own policies afresh and see if any questions for our own insurers arise.

- The Southland Times

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