With many international airlines bowing out of the stretcher-carrying business, you better be sure your travel insurance covers full repatriation benefits in case you are seriously stricken far from home. And if you’re one of the few who don’t carry insurance for every single trip you take out of the country, be prepared to put a mortgage on your house.
An air repatriation from, say, Prague to Winnipeg, with an R.N accompanying, in an appropriately equipped private air ambulance will probably run you at least $50,000, and that doesn’t count the several days you may spend in a Czech hospital getting stabilized, arranging for transportation, and getting the medical documentation in place. No air ambulance just drops down at your whim to whisk you off home. There’s medical necessity to be proven, and no medical professional on either side of the water is going to give his or her OK unless they are satisfied you can be transported safely and with a better than even chance of your arriving alive. Your say-so is not good enough.
In 2005, Air Canada banned medical stretchers on all its routes citing disruptions to flight schedules and late departures on many flights. In a tough economic environment it needed to concentrate on its core business—carrying mobile passengers. Air Canada’s decision came just two months after British Airways pulled the plug on stretchers, leaving only Air France, Lufthansa, and Virgin among the major European carriers still serving the major North American routes. U.S. based airlines had already given up that bit of business.
Though repatriation by stretcher is expensive even on a commercial airliner (you need to buy six to nine adjoining seats and pay for an accompanying nurse or doctor) it is still only a third or half the cost of using a dedicated air ambulance, which these days is a sophisticated piece of technology operated by highly trained specialists. And when the ambulance comes to get you, you’re the only one paying passenger—or if you are properly covered, your insurer is.
Fortunately, most Canadian insurers who specialize in single trip or annual out-of-country plans cover air repatriation. So if they can’t get you on a commercial airliner—which they will always try to do first—they may elect an air ambulance repatriation. That’s a decision they will make by balancing the cost of leaving you in a hospital at your travel destination against the cost of transporting you home. It’s also a decision your insurer’s medical director will make. You don’t have a lot of choice in it.
But you need to be aware that some credit cards, employer or pension plans, cruise ship plans, or even some international travel health plans not designed specifically for Canadians may not include repatriation to a hospital at home. Some cover only evacuation to the nearest available hospital. And that may be in a country thousands of miles from home, leaving you to get back the best way you can. There’s a big difference between medical evacuation and repatriation. Know what it is and make sure your policy spells it out.
Travel insurers are already confirming that the loss of stretcher capacity on commercial airliners has forced them to shift much of that business to dedicated air ambulances, and that has bumped up their costs of repatriating clients. Make sure you are protected from those substantial increases by having adequate travel insurance coverage for repatriations.