The ins and outs of travel insurance

By Pat Irwin

A 70-year-old man with type 2 diabetes was quoted $750 for travel insurance to cover 6 months in the USA. Bearing in mind that intensive-care treatment in the USA can begin at $5,000 per day, this starts to seem reasonable. The average snowbird can probably afford the $750 premium rather than risk $5,000 per night!

With changes in provincial insurance coverage, all of us should take a good look at our coverage and plan ahead to make sure we have adequate travel medical insurance when going abroad.
Given the lead times to apply and arrange for coverage, do not make this the last thing on your travel to-do list. But what should you look for and how do you get started?

First steps

Shopping for insurance can be confusing, with even the most basic Google search offering a dizzying array of travel health insurance options. Finding the best coverage for your specific needs requires a bit of due diligence on your part. Your insurance policy should take into account your current health, any pre-existing medical conditions, and your medical and insurance history.

Chat with your travel agent, bank, credit card company, insurance broker and employee health provider. You may also be able to buy suitable travel insurance through travel and seniors associations such as CAA, CARP and the Canadian Snowbird Association.

The government’s website (travel.gc.ca) has wise advice for out-of-country travelers. It includes a warning to check the specifics of your provincial health coverage, or lack of it, and a reminder that your provincial or territorial health plan may not cover any medical bills incurred overseas (and will never pay your bills upfront).

What to ask

Here are three questions to ask about your travel health insurance policy.

1. Does it exclude any regions in the world, and will it cover medical evacuation to Canada or to the nearest place with appropriate medical care? The policy should also cover the costs
of a medical escort to travel with you to your final destination.

2. Ask the company to explain the definition of, and the limitations and restrictions on any pre-existing conditions and tests and treatments you may have had, and get the answer in writing. I’ve heard of nasty surprises where claims have been considered “null and void” under a pre-existing condition clause.

3. You’ll also want the agreement to include what’s called a “stability clause.” This will outline the terms under which you will be covered for any pre-existing medical conditions.

And you’ll want to make sure that, if the worst happens, the plan covers the preparation and return of your remains to Canada.

Other things to consider

When assessing a travel health insurance plan, check on your ability to renew it from abroad if necessary and review the amount of the per-incident deductible. Plans with 100 per cent coverage are more expensive but may save you money in the long run.

In addition, does the company have an in-house, worldwide, 24/7 emergency contact number in English and/or translation services for healthcare providers in your destination country?

Verify the terms, conditions, limitations, exclusions and requirements of your insurance policy before you leave Canada. It is your responsibility to know and understand the terms of your insurance policy. Read the fine print carefully and ask for help if you need it.

Make a note of the number to call from overseas if you need help. It’s important to get approval from your insurer before you undergo medical treatment. Travel health insurance rarely covers routine health check-ups, non-emergency care or cosmetic surgery. It also may not cover mental health disorders, drug- or alcohol-related incidents, or extreme sports such as bungee jumping and rock climbing.

Ask before you fly

Does your policy pay for your hospitalization for illness or injury and related medical costs at your destination? Will it pay bills or advance the necessary cash up front? If you do become unwell, always keep any notes and get a detailed report and invoice from your doctor or hospital before leaving the country where you have received medical treatment. Getting the proper paperwork from thousands of kilometres away after the fact is often quite difficult.

Submit the original receipts for any medical services or prescriptions you received when abroad in a timely fashion, but keep a copy of the documents for your own files. You may want a report or copy of your records for your usual doctor as well.

Before you travel, make sure you have a copy of your insurance information with your tickets and leave a back-up copy with a friend or relative at home. Last but not least, know that your insurance company might not pay your medical claim if the Government of Canada has issued a travel advisory against visiting your chosen destination. Check the travel advisory list (travel.gc.ca/traveling/advisories) before you depart.

Better safe than sorry

Whether you’re visiting friends and family, heading off on a cruise or planning something more adventurous, check out the fine print of your insurance policy ahead of time and be sure you’re covered. It’s sad enough when a holiday is interrupted by a sudden illness, but it will be even worse if you get stuck with huge healthcare bills that could have been avoided.

Pat M. Irwin, BA, AICB, CPCA, is the president of ElderCareCanada and a professor of distance learning at Centennial College.

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