Trekking agents and their clients fraud insurance companies, overcharging for genuine rescues
A potentially damaging investigative report in the latest issue of Summit magazine
published by the British Mountaineering Council has drawn attention to insurance scams for helicopter rescue of trekkers in Nepal.
Written by climber-journalist, Ed Douglas, the article goes into gory details of trekking agents and their clients frauding insurance companies, overcharging for genuine rescues, and even getting insurance companies to pay for a ‘fast ride’ back to Kathmandu when they get bored by forging health certificates to show they were sick enough to need evacuation.
As the number of helicopter companies in Nepal proliferates, there is cut-throat competition among them to get a larger market share. The performance of helicopters have also improved and it is now possible to pluck climbers off mountains at altitudes of 7,000m as happened on Annapurna in 2010 when an Ecureuil B3 helicopter rescued three climbers.
However, corruption, weak regulation, and impunity have tempted many to make underhand deals to cash in on trekking insurance. The article, titled Dial-a-flight quotes a helicopter pilot in Nepal who says the industry is rife with kickbacks. “If the client gets sick, that is a good thing for the trekking companies. A client paying $1,500 for a trek in the Everest region if he gets sick may be paid $2-3,000 from the rescue helicopter.”
More than helicopter companies, the article quotes insiders as saying that it is the travel and trekking agents and private hospitals who make money out of the estimated 1,500 helicopter rescues in Nepal every year.
Nepal is the second most expensive after the United States for a helicopter rescue, it is even more costly than getting rescued in Antarctica or Switzerland. As insurance companies get scammed, they raise the premium and this is passed down to genuinely sick people.
A doctor in Kathmandu is quoted in the article as saying that only 20 per cent of patients medevaced to Kathmandu for acute mountain sickness actually needed it.
The article concludes: “With millions of dollars in commissions up for grabs, it is hardly surprising that Nepal’s private helicopter sector has attracted middlemen looking for a slice.”
Summit magazine of the British Mountaineering Council found evidence of five main ways trek middlemen in Nepal cheat insurance companies:
1. Unnecessary evacuations
Trekkers persuaded they need treatment when they don’t. Hospitals and helicopter companies are sometimes in cahoots.
2. Fast rides down
Trekkers who get bored, can buy fake documents and forged certificates to prove they needed to be choppered out.
3. Overcharging rescues
An insurance-covered rescue flight often flies in cargo from Kathmandu, and extra seats on the flight are sold for cash on the spot.
4. Charging twice for the same rescue
Two trekkers were evacuated from Manaslu on the same rescue flight, the local agent billed the insurance company $5,000 for two evacuations.
5. Pre-scheduling rescue flights into trekking itineraries
Having fake doctors’ certificates ready for trek members to claim insurance for being helicoptered out so they don’t have to walk back down the same valley.