A Victorian tribunal has found insurer QBE discriminated against a young woman when the company refused to provide travel cover after she was struck down with depression.
Pressure is mounting on insurance companies to reconsider policies around mental illness after a young woman won a landmark discrimination case against insurance giant QBE.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal on Friday found QBE discriminated against 21-year-old Ella Ingram when it refused to cover the costs of her trip after she was struck down with depression.
The company has been ordered to pay almost $20,000 - $15,000 for hurt and humiliation and $4292 for the cost of cancelling a New York trip.
Ms Ingram booked the trip in 2011 as part of a school tour but was forced to cancel on medical advice after being diagnosed with depression.
When she tried to claim the costs on insurance, QBE rejected it on the basis there is no cover where the claim arises directly or indirectly due to mental illness.
QBE denied discriminating against Ms Ingram, arguing it had not refused to provide her insurance and that the policy wording contained an exclusion for mental illness.
The tribunal found QBE breached the equal opportunity act and engaged in unlawful discrimination when it included the mental illness exclusion in the policy.
Ms Ingram wants the decision to pave the way for others with mental illness to stand up for their rights, and for "insurers to not treat us like second class citizens".
"I thought their treatment of me might be what I would experience for the rest of my life," she said.
“I would like insurance companies to treat mental illness the same as any other physical illness; and for them to not just base their reasons on stereotypes," she told SBS World News.
Victoria Legal Aid equity law program manager Melanie Schleiger said it was time for QBE and other insurers to eliminate discriminatory practices.
"Ella's win confirms that compliance with discrimination laws is not optional and that insurers need to base their decisions on evidence, not stereotypes and assumptions, when they reject a claim or cover because of a mental illness."
Mental health groups hailed the decision as a "huge milestone" with big implications for the insurance industry.
Mental Health Australia boss Frank Quinlan said one in five Australians suffer mental illness each year, meaning millions could be affected by exclusions for travel, income protection and life insurance.
"We hope the outcome of this case will be a catalyst for change in the insurance sector."
Beyondblue chief executive Georgia Harman said the ruling would force the insurance industry to re-examine their blanket exclusion clauses on mental illness.
“This is a great day for Ella and it’s a fantastic day for hundreds of thousands of Australians who felt the stigma and the discrimination that Ella and her family have experienced," she told SBS World News.
"We can be celebrating this day and a wake up call for the insurance industry."
QBE has 28 days to lodge an appeal with the Victoria Supreme Court.
The company said it was still working to understand the implications of the ruling.
It would give further consideration in the weeks ahead and welcomed further engagement on the matter.
"With a significant number of Australians suffering from mental health illnesses to some degree in any given year, to provide travel insurance cover for mental health illness would significantly increase the cost of travel insurance premiums for the whole community," QBE said.