Many older Australians increasingly can’t afford insurance

Malcolm Battersby can keep a lid on his shopping bill by growing his own vegetables.

“I’ve still got tomatoes from the last crop in the freezer so it’s really really good,” he said.

“Without it, it’s just more expense.”

But the Tasmanian pensioner feels powerless when it comes to keeping down the cost of his insurance bill.

He switched insurance providers for his home and contents policy three years ago but the cost has risen $300 each year since.

“If this keeps going, I am expecting within five years I will be paying over $3000 a year just for insurance,” he said.

“It’s always people with a low income that seem to get hammered.”

Mr Battersby knows the risk of not having insurance. His home was one of the few on his street left standing after bushfires ripped through the Tasman Peninsula in 2013.

“Some people didn’t have any insurance at all and they were in a lot of strife. The man over the road there, he slept in a tent for a good few years.

A man in a hat sits behind a car's steering wheel.
Malcolm Battersby can only afford third-party insurance for his car. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

“I do know the risks of not having insurance and I will try like hell to keep up paying the premiums.”

But when it comes to insuring his 20-year-old car, Mr Battersby can only afford third-party cover.

He said without the car, he is “stuck”, describing the public transport near him as unreliable.

He is supportive of calls for insurance to be considered an essential service.

“With the electricity bill they give us a discount, with the rego we get a discount, so it’s just one other essential. I just think government could be a bit more generous,” he said.

No insurance means ‘entrenching poverty’

The cost of insurance has gone up by 3.4 per cent between the June quarter 2021 and June 2022, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Julia Davis from the Financial Legal Rights Centre said “some of that is about how many claims insurers are paying and how the cost of those claims are going up”.

The price increase has been even higher in some states.

“In Tasmania alone, insurance has increased by 5.8 per cent over the last year and that really puts it out of reach for many Tasmanians living on low and medium incomes,” said Adrienne Picone from the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS).

“A recent report … showed that even people living on an income between $50,000 and $99,000, of those – half said they were unlikely to take out insurance because they couldn’t afford it,” she said.

A woman sitting in the office.
Adrienne Picone says even Tasmanians on $90,000 a year struggle to afford insurance. (ABC News: Adam Langenberg)

A 2021 report by the South Australian Council of Social Services (SACOSS) found that up to one in three people on low incomes did not have contents insurance.

The report warned of the increased risk of natural disasters due to climate change in Australia:

“There will be greater risk of bushfires, droughts, floods, and coastal hazards from rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and coastal storms.

“The consequences of people being uninsured will drastically increase as the frequency of natural disasters continues to increase with climate change.”

Floods fallout expected to push up premiums

One million households in Australia already face “extreme” levels of insurance stress and will bear the brunt of future premium hikes driven by climate change, research has warned.

A man in a hat walks down front steps of a house.
Malcolm Battersby supports calls for insurance to be considered an essential service. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

The Insurance Council of Australia said premiums were likely to rise further following the flood disasters in Tasmania and across Australia’s east coast.

CEO Andrew Hall said that collectively it had been the largest flood event in Australia’s history.

He said poor long-term planning in flood-prone areas and rising rebuild costs were forcing premiums higher.

“I expect premiums will remain in an upward cycle, largely driven by the fact that the cost of building and repairs, labour costs, have all increased across the board,” he said.

An aerial view shows widespread flooding in Latrobe.
Many towns across the eastern seaboard have been partially submerged by floodwaters after heavy rain in October. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The cost of car insurance is also becoming increasingly unaffordable for many.

The South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) report found one in four people on low incomes with a car did not have comprehensive vehicle insurance.

“Our fact sheet about having a car accident and being uninsured is one of the most popular fact sheets on our whole website,” said Julia Davis. 

A woman with brown hair and glasses smiles at the camera
Julia Davis says climate change and severe weather events will exacerbate the consequences of not being insured. (Supplied)

She said without insurance if there is an accident or a car is stolen, “they just have no options, they just can’t absorb that kind of loss and without insurance, there is so little we can do to help them”.

“People on low incomes are going to be the least resilient and the least able to bounce back after a bad event, after a theft or an accident or an electrical fire or something that destroys their home or their rental property or their belongings,” she said.

“They’re not going to have a savings buffer they could rely on, they’re not going to be able to access credit easily and quickly to replace belongings.

“If they don’t have insurance it’s going to be really difficult for them to get back on their feet.

“It just can entrench poverty for people who are already struggling.”

Calls for insurance to be an ‘essential service’

Portrait of Malcolm Battersby on the outside deck at his home.
Malcolm Battersby is able to keep food costs down by growing his own vegetables. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

In Australia, the only way of protecting assets is to buy insurance on the private market.

“There are always going to be low-income vulnerable members of our society who cannot afford the market rates of all services,” said Julia Davis.

“Insurance plays a really important social role in this country in keeping communities resilient and together.

“I just think it’s time to start talking about insurance as an essential service.”

That could mean a federal government insurance subsidy for people on low incomes.

“You need some really smart people in the room to design them so you don’t end up with perverse outcomes where insurers just raise their prices for those people,” said Ms Davis. 

“You could provide rebates at tax time, that’s what we do with health insurance.”

There are also calls for contents insurance provisions to be made for people living in social housing.

“We need to provide subsidies for them so that they can afford contents insurance if they are affected by a fire,” said Ms Picone.

Subsidies won’t help ‘long-term resilience’

Malcolm Battersby looks out to the water from the deck at his home.
Mr Battersby says a neighbour has had to sleep in a tent because he couldn’t afford fire insurance and his house was destroyed. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the federal government acknowledged that “the affordability and availability of insurance is a concern for many Australians, especially in areas vulnerable to natural disasters”.

“The government has committed to allocating up to $200 million a year from the Disaster Ready Fund, which will invest in disaster resilience projects.

“Reducing the risk of damage to homes and businesses will put downward pressure on insurance premiums, particularly for Australians in disaster-prone areas.”

But the spokeswoman warned that, “subsidies offer short-term financial relief, but they won’t secure long-term resilience.”

Kellie Caught from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) said the federal government has focused on a risk-based mitigation model.

“It hasn’t really looked at how we can make insurance more affordable, especially for people on low incomes, so we’re asking for a review to be done,” she said.

“Some of the things that could be considered [are] helping people on low incomes mitigate the risk by improving their homes so that it’s at less risk to extreme weather events.

“In some cases, where necessary, helping people on low incomes actually move to locations where there are less extreme weather events.”

A woman with blonde hair smiles at the camera
Kellie Caught says the federal government should look at measures to make insurance more affordable for those on low incomes. (ABC News: Dean Caton)

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