Money

Chopper firms deny involvement in rescue scam

- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

Jan 29, 2019-

Nepali helicopter companies on Monday issued a ‘firm’ denial of the allegations contained in a series of news stories published by national and international media outlets that they were involved in multi-million dollar insurance scams involving bogus rescues.

The Helicopter Society of Nepal, which has 10 helicopter companies as its members, said that the allegation that they were pushing agencies for emergency evacuations of foreign trekkers and mountaineers for minor illnesses was ‘baseless’ and ‘far from the truth’. 

“We don’t conduct rescue operation and deal with insurance claims directly,” Yog Raj Kandel, secretary general of the society, told a press meet here on Monday. “A chopper is dispatched to rescue people at the request of the trekking or tour operator after payment is confirmed,” he said. 

“Our task simply is to rescue travellers—pick them up and take them to wherever they tell us,” he said. “Our role is over after we drop them off at their destination, and we don’t deal with insurance. We only operate after payment is confirmed—either by cash, credit card or cheque,” he said. “So, how are we involved in making fake insurance claims of foreign travellers?” he said. “We are not responsible for what the intermediaries arranging emergency evacuation services for trekkers and mountaineers charge their clients. We have a set of rates that we charge,” said Kandel. 

“Ireland-based Traveller Assist, acting as underwriters of three insurance companies, which has claimed finding evidence of massive insurance fraud by hospitals and charter and rescue companies, has written to us that none of the helicopter companies is involved in the insurance scams involving bogus rescues.” 

The email sent by Traveller Assist, a copy of which was obtained by the Post, says, “We want to clear up one misconception. In our investigation, we did not identify one single helicopter company as acting fraudulently. The evidence we found was that helicopters are used as a tool by the fraudulent companies whether it be lifting a trekker unnecessarily for a minor problem or lifting multiple travellers on one helicopter and then charging insurers full price for each traveller.”

The email continues, “In one case, a total of $39,000 for one helicopter with six passengers onboard. The name of the helicopter companies that were released to media was as a result of the governments own investigation and they informed us that the reason for this was due to evidence that commissions was being paid.”     

The Helicopter Society of Nepal said that rescue flight rates vary depending on a number of parameters such as altitude, weather, type of rescue and the number of rescuees. “In the most extreme cases, the rescue charge is high. It’s not that we are charging willfully, as the cost becomes automatically high due to insurance of the rescuers and logistics needed for extreme rescue operations,” said Kandel, adding that in some cases, multiple attempts need to be made. “We are saving lives.” He said that things should be confirmed before blaming anyone. “None of the international media outlets tried to reach us to include our quotes. It’s one-sided news.”

Traveller Assist sent a separate email to the Tourism Ministry warning that if insurance scams involving bogus rescues were not stopped by mid-February, they would be forced to stop issuing travel insurance policies for Nepal on behalf of their clients. Responding to Traveller Assist, the government on September 1 last year removed all ‘intermediaries’ arranging emergency evacuation services for trekkers and mountaineers, and made the agency handling the tour package legally responsible for looking after its customers from start to finish.

The government has issued new directives that require helicopter companies, travel and tour operators, hospitals and insurance companies to submit details of rescue flights, medical treatment and insurance bills to the Tourist Search and Rescue Committee, Tourist Police and Department of Tourism. 

Traveller Assist claimed that insurance fraud had not stopped as the government had shown leniency towards companies involved in the fake rescue scam.

Published: 29-01-2019 09:53

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