IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

Travel Health Journal

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Travel health insurance: Lessons from COVID-19

For many travellers, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of their travel health insurance. In this blog, we discuss how the pandemic has affected travel health insurance coverage and offer advice on what to consider for your next trip.

Many people began reconsidering their travel plans at the beginning of the pandemic and due to a lack of coverage, were forced to make the difficult decision between cancelling their trip – and losing hundreds or thousands of dollars – or risk travelling. Some insurers also began flagging the COVID-19 pandemic as a “known event” as early as January, meaning that policies purchased thereafter would not cover any COVID-19 related claims. As governments began implementing travel restrictions and encouraging residents to return home, insurers also implemented cut-off dates for coverage. For travellers unable to return home, this meant any coverage they were able to get extended did not include expenses related to COVID-19.

What to look out for before you buy

Travel health insurance policies are designed to cover unforeseeable medical expenses that occur while outside of your home country. These policies typically come in all shapes and sizes – offering varying degrees of coverage at different price levels.

This pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the travel insurance industry. Providers had to adapt to this situation rapidly and travellers have had to reassess the contents of their coverage. For many consumers, inaccessible language and legalese makes navigating these changes difficult.

It remains to be seen how insurers will adapt and if policies will be more responsive and targeted to travellers’ needs (without being cost-prohibitive) in the months and years to come. Consider the following before you buy:

Know what your policy covers

When you purchase a travel health insurance policy, you are only entitled to the coverage it provides if you agree to and abide by the terms and conditions of the policy. No one looks forward to reading their travel health insurance policy but there’s never been a more important time than now to make sure you do. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic many providers updated the terms and conditions of their coverage and more changes are expected once travel resumes.

At the moment, many insurance providers have temporarily suspended selling policies. However, numerous insurers still providing coverage have added exclusions related to COVID-19. For example, Allianz states that:

Claims due to known, foreseeable, or expected events, epidemics, government prohibitions, warnings, or travel advisories or fear of travel are generally not covered, and coverage can vary by state. However, until further notice, although not covered under most plans, we are currently accommodating claims for:

  1. Under Emergency Medical Care Benefit: Emergency medical care for a customer who becomes ill with COVID-19 while on their trip.
  2. Under Trip Cancellation or Trip Interruption Benefits: Trip cancellation and trip interruption if a customer becomes ill with COVID-19 either before or during their trip.

These accommodations are strictly applicable to COVID-19 and are only available for customers whose plan includes the applicable benefit.

These exclusions are often still confusing to navigate and can cost you significantly if you are not aware of them. When considering a policy, make sure to call the insurer to clarify any questions so that you are certain you understand what is and is not covered before you buy.

Cancellation coverage

When COVID-19 initially started to spread internationally, many people began reconsidering their upcoming travel plans and attempted to either reschedule or cancel their trips. Travellers with ‘cancel for any reason’ coverage – typically sold for 40% more than standard policies – were often able to get reimbursed, but those with standard cancellation insurance coverage were out of luck. Standard cancellation policies typically cover cancellation costs related to illness or injury, but not related to fear of travel or government issued travel advisories.

Where possible, always opt for a cancellation policy that provides the most flexibility and protection that you can afford to buy.  ‘Cancel for any reason’ policies allow you to cancel your trip if you change your mind and will reimburse you for at least 75% of the cost of your trip. These policies are likely to become more popular (and potentially at a higher premium) after the pandemic as more travellers will look to ensure they are actually protected in case they are unable to take their trip. As always though, it’s important to read the fine print with these policies and make sure to pay attention to any sudden changes introduced by the insurer.

Outbreaks at your destination

No matter where you go, it’s important to travel responsibly. That means preparing appropriately for your destination and the health risks you might encounter there. The COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully encourage more travellers to spend time researching their destinations – specifically, whether any outbreaks are ongoing and the capacity of the healthcare system. (IAMAT members can get information on ongoing outbreaks and access to exclusive resources to help plan a healthy trip. Sign up here.)

Governments and public health authorities around the world employed unprecedented measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Going forward, travellers will have to be conscious of reactions to infectious disease outbreaks (such as travel restrictions, entry/exit screening,  proof of vaccination, and self-isolation) and how these measures will affect their travel plans.

How insurers will react to the risks of future outbreaks and medical emergencies is also uncertain. Prior to the pandemic, insurers only restricted medical benefits when the traveller’s home country issued a travel advisory against all non-essential travel. However, we saw many insurers roll out statements declaring COVID-19 to be a “known event” which nullified coverage. Travellers will have to be careful to look out for language around inclusions and exclusions regarding COVID-19 and other infectious disease-related emergencies to be sure they have the coverage they need.

Be your own advocate

If you are in a situation where your travel health insurance provider is denying you coverage or refusing to pay a claim in full, there are steps you can take:

  • Get in touch with your insurer to discuss your case (preferably by email so there’s a paper trail). Your insurer’s decision was based on the information they had at the time, and it may be possible to provide additional details that can support your case.
  • If the representative is unresponsive, contact the insurer’s ombudservice office to escalate the complaint.
  • If the complaint is not resolved, refer to an insurance complaint body (see associations for USA and Canada).
  • Contact a consumer advocate organization near you to help advocate for your case in the media. Your travel health insurance provider may be pushed to reconsider.

It’s important to be patient during this process. The pandemic has affected many travel companies, hotels, and insurance providers so claim reviews and reimbursements may be delayed.

Additional resources

For more on travel health insurance, check out our resources:

Guide to travel health insurance

Understanding travel health insurance: Terms you need to know

Image by Nur Andi Ravsanjani Gusma from Pexels

Written by Claire Westmacott