Looking for advice on travel health insurance? Check out our Guide to Travel Health Insurance.
We often get asked about the merits and pitfalls of travel health insurance here at IAMAT. Distraught friends or family members of hospitalized travellers who are not insured call us inquiring about last-minute evacuation plans, others ask us whether they should get travel health insurance. Many also contact us to tell us about their frustration with their travel health insurance policy, mainly for what it doesn’t cover.
When we first started 49 years ago, travel health insurance did not exist. Nowadays, the travel health insurance sector is a multi-million dollar industry with hundreds of companies and brokers, including web-based ones, who specialize in this kind of coverage.
Weighing the risks of the type of travel you will be doing, your current health status, whether your destination has good and affordable socialized medical care available for non-residents, or even if you can afford insurance, are key issues to consider. Most importantly, do you have access to the name and contact information of a qualified physician at your destination whom you can trust? Keep in mind that if you require emergency care abroad, many hospitals and medical facilities cannot admit you if you do not have insurance coverage or proof of the funds available to pay for your care. Invariably, as a non-resident, your choices may be limited and costs can be exorbitant.
Getting the right coverage for you
If you decide to get travel health insurance, the best advice we can give is to thoroughly research policies and to read the fine print. Start by reviewing your medical insurance policy, employment / retirement benefits package, or your credit card company contract since you may already be covered. Check if it includes the following criteria:
- The insurance company either pays for emergency hospital or medical costs up front or reimburses you at a later date.
- Allows for cash advances if the hospital or doctor requires immediate payment.
- Covers you for a pre-existing medical condition such as diabetes, heart or kidney disease, or cancer, as well as premature births and emergency neo-natal care.
- Provides an in-house, emergency hotline available 24 hours, 7 days a week from anywhere in the world with operators who are multilingual, and have nurses or doctors on staff.
- Provides medical evacuation services back to your country and pays for a doctor, nurse or paramedic to accompany you during the trip.
- Pays for the preparation and repatriation of your remains in case of death.
If your existing coverage does not adequately cover you for the purpose of your trip, you will need to get supplemental travel health insurance. Your broker, travel agent, bank, drugstore, or local automobile association will often provide you with coverage or direct you to the right insurance carriers. You can also search for companies on the internet by typing keywords such as “Travel Health Insurance”, “Medical Evacuation” or “International Medical Insurance Coverage”.
Do your research, get quotes, and ask questions
As you research and get several quotes on policies, you’ll need to be attentive to details. For example, one company may have different definitions for the same terms used by another carrier. Moreover, each policy has different standards on length of coverage, medical exemptions, deductibles, co-payment rules, refund policies, and the cost of the premium you’ll have to pay to access their medical services abroad.
Coverage is for emergency care only. Typically, policies deal with ground and air ambulance transportation, hospital in-patient care and medication, outpatient services, doctors’ fees, and travel expenses related to the emergency. Insurers will not pay for routine check-ups, non-emergency care, or cosmetic surgery.
Your age, medical history, current health status, length and cost of trip, distance of your destination, and country determine the type of coverage you qualify for and how much it will cost. You’ll find that there are many exceptions that insurers consider prior to approval. For example, insurers may not pay for emergency care related to your pre-existing conditions (diabetes, cataracts, cancer, heart conditions, kidney disease, surgery, stroke, or psychiatric disorders). If you end up suffering from a psychiatric problem with no previous history of mental illness, your claim may be denied.
Incidents related to alcohol or drug use or injuries sustained by extreme sport activities such as rock climbing, mountaineering, bungee jumping will not be covered. If you are pregnant or have AIDS most carriers will not cover you. If you are taking medication, and your doctor changes your medication for a health problem within 90 days, six months, one year or longer of your application, you may not be covered. Most carriers will not insure you if you go to a country where your government has issued travel advisories, such as a region affected by war or political unrest.
It is important to clarify any terms or questions you may have. If they are not answered to your satisfaction, get more quotes. Don’t forget to check with your local Better Business Bureau branch or the national association of travel health insurers to see if the carrier you are considering is a reputable company.
Roles and responsibilities
Find out what your responsibilities are and carefully read what your insurance company will and will not do. For example, insurance companies set time limits for coverage and hospital stays, so if you are going on an extended trip find a carrier that will respect your timeline. If you require to be evacuated make sure your policy stipulates that you get to return home, not brought to the nearest medical facility where often care may be limited. Also, find out how many family members can be claimed under your policy or if your travelling companion(s) are also covered.
How does the claims process work? Will you have to pay for medical costs upfront and get reimbursed at a later date, or will the insurer pay the health provider immediately? Depending on the policy, you will have to pay a minimum deductible towards your claim, even if the claim is less than the deductible. Moreover, you may be responsible to pay for a percentage of your medical costs, generally between 10% to 20%. Carriers usually are not responsible for reimbursing the full 100% cost of your healthcare bill.
If you do apply for travel health insurance do not lie about your medical history. A future claim will be invalidated and leave you without emergency care or out of money for expenses incurred abroad. You may be tempted to get the cheapest coverage available, but keep in mind that in the end you’ll find that the coverage will be limited and you may be left responsible to pay for costly medical services.
The importance of being prepared
Remember to bring your insurance policy with you during your trip and give a copy to a relative or friend who is not going on the trip with you, just in case they need to contact the insurance company.
Travel health is all about prevention and common sense. Being aware of health issues that may arise and taking the appropriate measures to prevent illnesses and accidents when you are travelling are key components to enjoying your trip. If you are going to a region where IAMAT does not currently have an affiliated clinic or hospital, consider getting travel health insurance. The least you can do is register with your government (Consulate or Embassy) prior to departure so that if you do require emergency help they will be able to coordinate the appropriate medical care.