COVID-19 long-haulers left high and dry sue for disability coverage

by Leo Almazora29 Jan 2021

Some Canadians who are experiencing lasting health impacts from COVID-19 are now suing insurance companies after their claims for long-term disability coverage were denied.

Chantal Renaud, a communications manager living east of Ottawa, has started a lawsuit against her employer’s insurance company after it rejected her long-term disability claim for lingering symptoms suffered by COVID-19 “long-haulers.”

According to CBC News, she caught COVID-19 from her husband in March during the first wave of 2019. Renaud continued to work until early June, when she suffered the worst symptoms including debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, and palpitations. Her illness forced her to remain in bed for seven weeks. Her husband suffered many of the same symptoms, which left them both unable to work.

In the fall, she tried several times to come back to work, but relapsed into sickness each time. She has not worked since November. Her insurer denied her application for short-term disability benefits, a decision she managed to appeal. She also submitted a long-term disability claim, and when that was turned down in November, she sought the services of lawyer David Brannen.

“There needs to be some attention here, because this is having real effects on people — to the point they're losing their homes,” Brannen told CBC News. “Because they're not able to work, and they're stuck trying to prove a medical condition that's really in its infancy.”

That medical condition, a post-viral illness known as chronic COVID syndrome (CCS) or “long COVID”, is already recognized in the U.K. regardless of whether the sufferer has had a positive lab test. In Canada, Brannen said federal guidelines to define the condition have yet to be established, leaving sufferers unable to access insurance benefits and income assistance.

Renaud and her husband join a growing list of COVID-19 long-term sufferers launching legal challenges to get the condition recognized. Faced with extreme financial difficulties, they have recently decided they would have to sell their home.

“The amount of claims that are being denied are skyrocketing right now,” Renaud said in an interview with CTV News. “This is a huge, huge problem where people are unable to get appropriate coverage.”

Responding to questions from the news outlet, the Canadian Life and Health Association (CLHIA) said trend data on claims relating to COVID-19 are not yet available. A spokesperson from the group told CTV News that coverage is “generally based on an assessment of an individual’s condition and the requirements of their job.”

“Plan members are eligible for disability benefits if they meet the plan’s definition of disability, including where disability is caused by COVID-19 infection,” said Diane Bezdikian, a senior vice-president of plan member services with Canada Life.

But as many questions surrounding COVID-19 remain unanswered – what it will be like in two years, how the different strains affect people, and so on – that has left a crucial gap for many left devastated by its worst impacts.

“This is such a new area, where new information is constantly coming up, it’s really difficult to pinpoint how the issues are going to evolve over time,” Yinka Oyelowo, a lawyer focused on workers’ rights at Yinka Law, told CTV News.