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At last, your highly anticipated vacation is around the corner. As you count off the days on your commute to work each morning, thoughts of anything going wrong while you’re away couldn’t be further from your mind. Besides, you’re pretty sure you’ve got travel health insurance through your credit card anyway, right?
Millions of Canadians have some travel health insurance coverage, either through a policy that comes with a premium credit card or an employer-sponsored health plan, says Will McAleer, executive director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA). “Some of those are more than adequate for Canadians who travel this winter.”
The problem is that many of us aren’t clear on any of the policy details, which likely include restrictions based on length of stay, age, cost of treatment and any pre-existing conditions you may have. Often, those details aren’t that visible to the consumer, who may have only glanced at the marketing brochure that came with that card or workplace healthcare policy, says McAleer.
Many of these policies expire after age 64 and won’t cover you for a trip longer than 15 days. Or they can max out too soon, designed to pay for a drop-in clinic consult for a case of pink eye but not an emergency medical evacuation if you injure your spine while skiing.
In a recent survey, THIA found that only a little more than a quarter of respondents were clear about what’s covered by a travel policy they hold.
There are four “golden rules” of travel health insurance that Canadians should understand, says McAleer.
- Know your policy
“Understand what your policy covers and what it doesn’t,” he says. Whether that means digging up the information that came with your credit card or workplace insurance, or understanding a new policy you’re planning to purchase, go over the fine print very carefully. Call the insurance company and get specifics if you have any questions.
- Know your trip
“Are you travelling as a snowbird, or are you going to go bungee jumping or scuba diving?” asks McAleer. You need to make sure your policy matches your trip and the risks you’re taking while you’re away. You’ll need more insurance for hiking the Inca Trail in Peru or scuba diving in Belize than you would for parking yourself on a beach for a week. The costs for emergency services outside of the country can be significant, particularly when you consider that 80 to 90% of Canadians vacation in the United States—“arguably the most expensive place for medical treatment on the planet,” says McAleer. “A code blue emergency—so, a life-saving emergency—not only could it cost you $10,000 a day, it could cost you $10,000 an hour, depending on how serious the emergency is.”
- Know your rights and responsibilities
McAleer says consumers have a right to contact their insurer to ask for specifics about what’s covered, as well as to appeal if coverage gets denied. “But you’ve also got responsibilities,” he says. The first of those is to make sure you’re answering any medical questions correctly and accurately, “because if you don’t, [that] could lead to disappointment when you need it the least.” Barring a catastrophic situation where it’s simply not possible to do so, you also have a responsibility to contact your insurance provider, not your credit card company, before accessing medical services—otherwise, you may not be covered.
- Know your health
If you’ve been to the doctor for anything beyond a regular checkup recently, you need to learn if those issues could be considered a dreaded “pre-existing condition” that your insurer will exclude from your coverage, says McAleer. If you do have something going on with your health, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to stay home, says Sivan Tumarkin, an insurance and disability lawyer. The key is to get a policy that’s designed to account for whatever you’ve got going on with your health. Manulife, for example, offers travel insurance that’s tailored to whatever pre-existing conditions the customer may have, he says. Note that it’s critical not to cut corners when describing any health issues you have.
“If you make a claim, they’ll pore through your records to find any arguments you’ve breached the policy,” he says.
Tumarkin advises against getting insurance from a travel agent. Because they’re not brokers, they can’t advise you in detail on what a policy will cover. Instead, go to a reputable insurance broker. These pros sell policies from a variety of insurance companies and will help you understand the options. If your employer or credit card coverage isn’t sufficient, a broker can find you a policy that will top you up should you need anything more than the basic drop-in clinic visit.
Vacation costs add up, so it can be tempting to go for a bargain-priced policy offered by your travel agent and travel website.
“Most people will go for whatever is cheapest, but there’s a reason why it’s priced that way,” says Tumarkin.