While trekking Mountain Everest, if the trekker gets really sick or is in need of medical assistance, helicopters rescuers are a call away. However, the helicopter rides also paved way for a multimillion dollar scam.
Now, the Nepalese government is investigating it.
Everest climbers were reportedly forced to get off the mountain with the help of a helicopter at the first sign of illness, which was sometimes instigated by spiked food. They would then be rushed off to hospitals to be slapped with bills worth of thousands of dollars, which were then charged to insurance companies.
The lucrative scam had been going on for more than five years and caused at least one unnecessary death. Dozens of helicopter companies, tour operators, hotels and hospitals worked together to rob insurance companies off of millions of dollars.
Helicopters had been frequently used as a meaning of costly ride down the mountains. In fact, one investigation revealed there had been almost 1,600 helicopter rescues this year alone, costing the insurers more than $4 million.
Upon the revelation of a systematic abuse of insurance money, many insurers threatened to pull out of the country by Sep. 1, if the government fails to take actions against the scammers.
A new government committee then ordered helicopter companies, trekking operators and hospitals to submit record for each of the rescue made, to determine whether it was unnecessary.
Legal action, although unspecified, was proposed against 15 Nepalese companies over unnecessary evacuations and hospitalizations.
One particular incident of forceful recue was endured by Danny Kaine after he suffered a mere headache on his way to the Everest base camp in June. As soon as he informed his guide of the pain, he became adamant he need to helicopter to be flown to a hospital for check up.
“Instantly he said, we need a helicopter, we need to get you out,” the experienced British trekker said. “He became quite aggressive.”
In a local hospital in Kathmandu, he went under a series of tests and was slapped with a hefty bill.
“My final bill was $12,800 – for a headache,” he said. “I could’ve taken two Advil and it would’ve been fine.”
Kaine instantly smelled foul play. He had been hired by three insurers to investigate exactly what he came across.
According to Kaine, trekking has become increasingly popular which prompted many trekking companies to offer discounted packages for hikes. The money they lost over discounts, they would then make up through fraudulent helicopter recues and hospital bills.
“The majority of the trekking companies involved in the fraud are charging a lot less than legitimate companies, maybe $500 for a $1,000 trek,” said Kaine. “They are losing money on each trek and need to make it up.”
The trekking companies would sometimes try to involve climbers in the scam, offering them around $750 to pretend to be sick.
“The heli company would pay the trekking company $2,000 in commission, which they make back from the hospital that pays them a commission to bring them foreign patients, who they then over-treat and over-bill the insurer for,” he said. “There’s money at every level of this.”
The trekkers would also be made ill deliberately to further the scam.
“We’ve heard of cases where tourists have been made deliberately ill,” Prakash Sharma Dhakal, the official who led the inquiry, told the AFP previously.
“In our investigation, we’ve seen a profit margin of up to 63% by some companies … and hospitals have issued bills of up to 6m rupees ($52,756).”
Tim Riley, the managing director of the insurance company True Traveller, said the scam started as a way for rescue companies to try and get the money back after they invested in helicopters in 2010.
“We’ve covered about 40 (helicopter rescue) in Nepal last year, and even that’s massively down on the past,” he said. “In 2013 we had six in one weekend.”
He said the scam was made possible, in part, due to the increasing popularity of the beauty of Mountain Everest, thanks to social media sites.
“Five or ten years ago, people didn’t think Nepal or Everest were possible,” he said. “Instagram plays a huge part in this. Year on year, there’s between 20-30% more travel insurance sold for Nepal in the past five years.”
Thumbnail/ Banner Credits: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images