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The Healthy Traveler

Travel Insurance You May Need

October 09, 1994|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Two recent disasters, the pneumonic plague outbreak in India and the shigellosis outbreak aboard the Viking Serenade cruise ship, are sad reminders that travel insurance, including evacuation insurance, can be an essential tool for travelers.

Among the worst case scenarios: A traveler falls ill in a remote area of the world, cannot get medical treatment and needs an air ambulance out. Later, he or she receives another nasty surprise: a $20,000 evacuation bill that is not covered by insurance.

The good news is that travel health insurance and evacuation coverage are offered by numerous companies and rates have remained fairly stable for the past few years. However, travelers should carefully examine language on policies being considered: Exclusions and exceptions are common. Some policies, for example, specifically exclude coverage for injuries from mountain climbing and other adventure activities.

Before considering coverage, it's a good idea for travelers to call their own health insurance carriers to find out exactly what is and isn't covered during both domestic and foreign travel, experts said. (Many health care plans cover medical expenses during both, but it's best to check ahead of time. Emergency evacuation, whether domestic or foreign, can be excluded from coverage or have restrictions.) Then find a policy that fills in the gaps of the existing policy without duplicating coverage.

Many traditional health care plans cover medical emergencies and "urgent health matters" overseas. Older travelers are more likely to buy special travel coverage, partly because Medicare generally does not pay for hospital or medical services outside the United States. "Most of our clientele are 55 to 70" years old, said Chad Emery, spokesman for Access America, a travel health insurance provider.

In addition to providing health-care and evacuation coverage, some companies offer help in finding a physician or hospital away from home and will even contact a personal physician at home. Some will provide a hospital deposit and offer pre-trip medical referral information. (They also offer insurance packages to ensure against baggage delay, trip cancellation and flight insurance for accidental death or dismemberment.)

"We consider travel health insurance a supplement to the health policy travelers already have," said Jenny Van Soelen, a spokeswoman for Travel Assure, one company that offers travel health coverage.

Insurance experts recommend shopping around to find a policy that best complements your existing health insurance.

"Try to compare features," said Harvie Raymond, a spokesman for the Health Insurance Assn. of America, a Washington-based trade group representing commercial health insurance companies.

It's important, too, to ask about the payment arrangement. Some plans pay for services as they occur; others reimburse travelers after arrival home.

Applying for travel health and evacuation insurance is easy. "There are no medical questions," said Van Soelen. "It's basically filling out an application."

This does not mean that every health care expense will be covered. Coverage with Travel Assure, for example, excludes benefits for injuries resulting from participation in races, speed or endurance contests, mountain climbing or organized sporting competitions. Before buying a policy, look for what is generally referred to as a general exclusions provision. It tells travelers what conditions are not covered.

Pay special attention, too, to the explanation of medical benefits paid. With the Travel Assure plan, for example, the sickness expense benefit is only payable for illness when "no medical advice, consultation or treatment (excluding prescription drugs) has been given for 60 days (30 in Illinois)" before travel. When a claim is filed, a common policy is to research the client's medical history to determine if the expense was related to a pre-existing condition. Benefits may not be payable for travel to certain locations. Access America, for example, denies coverage for travel to Nigeria, Vietnam and numerous other destinations "recognized by the State Department as being unsafe," according to a company representative.

Costs vary. One company, International SOS Assistance, offers a $40 membership for a trip of up to 14 days. Included are medical assistance, a hospital deposit guarantee, the cost of dispatching a doctor, emergency evacuation and a host of other services. There are discounted packages for frequent travelers, couples and families.

HealthCare Abroad, another plan, costs $3 a day for trips ranging from 10 to 120 days. Coverage includes up to $100,000 in benefits after a deductible of $100. Benefits can be used for doctors' fees, hospital charges, prescription medicine, evacuation and other expenses.

Last-minute sign-ups are usually accepted, company representatives say.

For more information: Access America, (800) 284-8300; HealthCare Abroad, (800) 237-6615; International SOS Assistance (800) 523-8930; Travel Assure (800) 228-9792.

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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