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HEALTHY TRAVELER

Medical Coverage? Watch the Fine Print

February 11, 2001|KATHLEEN DOHENY

The woman's cancer had stabilized, or so her doctor thought, so she was allowed to go on her dream trip to Egypt. But while cruising on the Nile, she suffered a relapse and the prognosis was grim. She was airlifted home, and the $68,000 tab was picked up by the insurance carrier that had issued her a traveler's policy covering medical evacuation.

Being sick or injured far from home is many travelers' worst nightmare. But the scenario worsens if you're in a place where you can't get the medical care you need and must be airlifted out. Worse still is if you are stricken in a place where your medical insurance may not be in force--and in the case of seniors who have only Medicare coverage, that generally means anywhere outside the U.S.

Horror stories of travelers caught in these nightmares can persuade people to run out and buy unlimited coverage before they go abroad. Experts advise checking your health insurance plan first to see what's covered during travel and identify any gaps. If extra insurance is needed, shop around, and be sure to study the fine print of policies for exclusions and limitations.

Travelers who have Medicare without supplementary insurance may be wise to buy coverage for health care away from home and for evacuation. Basic Medicare does not generally cover either of these situations, according to the Health Care Financing Administration, which administers Medicare.

Usually, coverages are bundled; a travel policy will include medical care and evacuation insurance along with such benefits as trip cancellation and interruption insurance. The policies are sold by insurance companies, cruise lines and travel agents, and some can be purchased over the Internet.

Premiums and coverages vary, sometimes based on the length of the trip or its cost. For instance, Access America offers $10,000 in emergency medical care and $50,000 in evacuation coverage (plus trip cancellation and other features) for $82 a person for a trip lasting five to eight days.

At CSA the age of the oldest traveler in the group is a factor in the cost. For instance, CSA charges $85 to cover a group of four or fewer people on a trip costing $1,001 to $2,000 when the oldest traveler is 55 or under.

Princess Cruises bases its premium on the cost of the trip. For a cruise costing $1,501 to $2,000 per person, the basic insurance package costs $129 per person. It includes trip cancellation and interruption insurance, medical evacuation up to $25,000, and assistance in finding legal and health care. For $50 more, the evacuation coverage doubles.

Unlimited medical evacuation coverage may be unnecessary. "The vast majority of evacuations are under $10,000," says Beth Godlin, a spokeswoman for Access America. "They're not usually done on air ambulance," she says.

The catch to watch out for is the preexisting condition clause. Typically, a medical condition might be termed preexisting if you received treatment for it within the past 60 or 180 days. But the insurer may waive this clause if you pay for the policy soon after booking the trip, presumably when you are feeling well.

Some policies have a broad definition of family. Access America, for instance, allows grandparents traveling with just their grandchildren under age 18 to purchase a family plan policy.

Check policies for additional features. For instance, CSA will fly a family member or friend to be with a policy holder who is hospitalized and alone.

And some plans cover you not per trip but for a specified time. For instance, Wallach & Co. has a global health care plan for travelers under age 71. It includes $100,000 in accident and sickness expense coverage, with evacuation if needed. With a $100 deductible, the cost is $16 per week, with a two-week minimum and a 26-week maximum. With a $1,000 deductible, the weekly cost drops to $11.

Access America, telephone (800) 284-8300, Internet http://www.accessamerica.com.

Princess Cruises, tel. (800) PRINCESS, http://www.princesscruises.com.

CSA, tel. (800) 873-9855, http://www.csatravelprotection.com.

Wallach & Co., tel. (800) 237-6615, http://www.wallach.com.

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The Healthy Traveler column appears on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

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