Why a serious case of COVID could affect your insurance, even decades from now

Experts fear that Australians infected by COVID could one day be locked out or penalised when they seek life insurance as scientists continue to uncover the longer-term impacts of the virus.

Life insurers can already use so-called carve-outs for those with pre-existing conditions, which means the customer would not be protected if that specific health issue one day stops them from being able to work.

If applied to COVID-19 patients, particularly those living with long-term impacts, it could make them ineligible for life insurance claims that stem from a COVID infection decades earlier.

Such exclusions, if they eventually occur, would be unlikely to apply to those with an existing life insurance policy unless they make changes or move to a new insurer.

To Omicron and beyond

Jane Tiller, from Monash University’s Public Health Genomics Program, said when an insurer learnt that a would-be client had COVID in their youth, it could figure into their sums — even decades into the future.

“Because of the reports of long-term effects of COVID that we’re seeing come through, there might be risks in people being able to get life insurance,” she said.

Woman with dark hair smiling
Jane Tiller says insurers can use evidence to support differential risk to discriminate. (Supplied: Jane Tiller)

Ms Tiller said there may also be risks if research eventually finds that some variants of COVID are more harmful than others.

“If it becomes possible to find out what variants you had, then it’s possible that they could try and distinguish between them,” she said.

“As long as there’s evidence to support a differential risk, an insurer can use that to discriminate against someone who had that risk factor.

“I’m concerned that perhaps we end up with a big divide between people who, through no fault of their own, no poor life choices, have been exposed to a serious pandemic virus.”

Mental health insurance crisis

With COVID-19 putting extreme pressure on Australians’ mental health, there are concerns life and income protection policies won’t cover people in need.

Illustration of a woman alone looking out a window.

Professor Julie-Anne Tarr from Queensland University of Technology’s faculty of business and law said some insurers had already tried to lock out COVID from policies.

“There was a company in Australia last year that started to create a carve-out for COVID, and they weren’t going to insure around it,” she said.

“They did a big backflip on that pretty quickly, so it never went to the market.”

COVID’s ‘long tail’

It is not possible to know what COVID variants lie in Australia’s future, or what impact they will have on our health.

But there is already research showing that COVID is leaving a lasting impact on patients — even with Omicron, despite its reputation as a milder form of the virus.

Deakin University Associate Professor Martin Hensher said data from the UK showed one in 10 COVID cases endured months of ‘long COVID’, or post-acute COVID syndrome.

He said one in 25 of those had the same key symptoms, including extreme fatigue and so-called ‘brain fog’, after 12 months.

Man in glasses, standing against wall
Associate Professor Martin Hensher says data shows one in 10 COVID cases endured months of ‘long COVID’. (Supplied: Deakin University)

Assoc. Prof. Hensher said for a small portion there was already signs that COVID has done tremendous damage to their bodies, and not just their lungs.

“They’re seeing neurological damage and some people are seeing kidney damage,” he said.

“These researchers are really suggesting that we might actually expect those people to be at an elevated risk of illness in the longer term, over coming years, as a result of that.”

For those who do suffer severe symptoms of COVID and end up in intensive care, he said they may be left with breathing and heart issues.

“Even people who’ve had relatively mild COVID infections actually might be at some elevated risk for particularly cardiac and neurological conditions,” Assoc. Prof. Hensher said.

Industry ‘sees no reason’ for exclusions 

Nick Kirwan, from the Financial Services Council, which represents the life insurance industry in Australia, said there was no evidence that insurers would lock out future customers because they had endured a COVID infection.

Man with dark grey suit, neutral expression
Nick Kirwan says insurers will take into account long-term health impacts from any health issue. (Supplied: Financial Services Council)

But he said if there were long-term health impacts from an earlier COVID infection, insurers would take that into account — no different to those living with diabetes or a heart condition.

“We would expect that to be treated in the same way as if they have long-lasting and ongoing symptoms,” Mr Kirwin said.

And for the young, he said he did not believe there was any reason why they would not be offered policies.

Mr Kirwan said anyone concerned about how the COVID pandemic will change should take out life insurance policy now for protection.

“You never know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said.

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Written by ABC News