Insurance companies treat social assistance recipients differently, says lawyer

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Insurance companies treat social assistance recipients differently, says lawyer

Auto insurance companies in New Brunswick are being accused of nickle-and-diming poor people hurt in accidents and wrongly passing some of the cost of their treatment onto taxpayers.

"They're being treated differently because they're on social assistance," said Fredericton personal injury lawyer George McAllister.

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"I don't have any big interest in this myself. I just think it's wrong."

McAllister is representing Kristell Unick, who was a passenger in a pickup truck last summer that was rear-ended at a highway construction site by a wood chip truck.

Turned life upside down

Eight months later she is still dealing with the physical and emotional effects of the accident.

"It's turned my life upside down. It really has," said Unick.   

"I'm an avid cyclist but I can't ride a bike very far. I get really bad headaches — so bad I can't blink and I've never had headaches my whole life,"  

Portage Mutual insured the vehicle Unick was in and is paying some of her rehabilitation expenses such as physiotherapy, but has resisted paying for other items like the province's $130 ambulance fee, because she is on social assistance.

"In respect to the bill for the ambulance services Ms. Unick does have some coverage, I believe, through Social Development," wrote the insurance adjuster assigned to the accident file explaining why Portage would not pay.

New Brunswick waives ambulance fees for low-income individuals and Unick will ultimately not have to pay the ambulance bill, but she feels taxpayers should not be stuck paying for her instead since she was in an insured vehicle at the time of the accident.

"You pay for insurance for a reason. You don't go out to get in an accident but if that happens you want that to take care of whoever is in your vehicle," said Unick.

Province ends up paying

Auto insurers normally pay ambulance fees for accident victims who do not have private health coverage and Unick said there is no reason for her to be treated differently.  

Her lawyer George McAllister agrees and said insurance companies bank on the province coming to the rescue and so do not pay medical bills for the poor the way they do for others.

"The insurance company should be paying these benefits, not the province and the insurance companies should not be treating the province's consolidated revenue fund as a slush fund for themselves," McAllister said.

Portage is based in Manitoba and is a mid-sized supplier of auto insurance in New Brunswick, collecting $12 million in premiums in the province in 2015.

Unick also had an $80 claim to fix her lower denture damaged in the accident refused for the same reason.

"You may wish to identify what medical and dental expenses might be covered if you are a recipient of Social Development Services," wrote the adjuster.

Portage Mutual did not return a call asking about its policy of dealing with victims of accidents who are on social assistance. 

Time to stop practice

McAllister said he has seen auto insurance companies deny $2,500 funeral benefits to social assistance recipients killed in an accident knowing the province will cover the cost instead.

He's now mounting a campaign to try to stop the practice.

In a letter to Premier Brian Gallant and Justice Minister Denis Landry earlier this month, McAllister outlined Unick's case and asked that rules allowing insurance companies not to pay some accident expenses for social assistance recipients to be eliminated. 

"The province of New Brunswick would be much better off financially if insurers were compelled to pay all insureds their benefits," wrote McAllister.

 "By stopping the current practice the province would be saving the taxpayers of the province millions of dollars."

On Thursday, McAllister said he had not heard back from the province.  

A spokesman for the justice minister said his department no longer deals with auto insurance issues.

The Department of Social Development did not immediately respond to a request for comment.