Do You Need Private Health Insurance for Travelling Within Canada?

The growing risk that the Zika virus may soon find a home in the southern regions of the U.S., i.e., Florida, Texas, the southeast Atlantic, and the other Gulf States, means that young families planning summer vacations might consider travelling throughout Canada a great alternative. (I specify “young families” because the Zika virus threat is greatest for pregnant women or those who may become pregnant).

Fortunately, Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that transmits this virus, is not endemic to Canada, so that adds a valid incentive (along with a slumping loonie) to think seriously about domestic travel during the upcoming summer months.

And that raises a question: “Do I really need private travel insurance to tour my own country?”

Ask travel agents, official government websites, motor leagues, and travel insurers, and the answer will invariably be “yes,” even though Canada has a long tradition of providing comprehensive and universal health care to all its residents—no matter where they live.

But a more circumspect answer might be: “It depends on your circumstances.”

Understand that medicare is designed and run by your province, not by Ottawa. It is a provincial program (with some federal funding) and, as such, has its own rules, benefit schedules, provider reimbursement rates, and costs it will cover—and not cover. And those rules vary from province to province.

Under the original Medical Care Act, which brought universal health care to Canada, and its successor, the Canada Health Act (which revised the original somewhat), Canadians are entitled to portability of health care services no matter where they travel. But the federal government has failed to fully enforce the portability requirement (e.g., by allowing provinces to pay only a pittance for health care once you leave the country).

British Columbia, for example, pays foreign hospitals only $75 (loonies) per day for hospital care provided to its residents who are stricken by medical emergencies in foreign countries. The other provinces are not much better. But that’s another story.

As for coverage within Canada, provinces have reciprocal arrangements with each other under which the province or territory providing the service directly bills your home province or territory for most medically necessary services. (Quebec is an outlier to these arrangements, but that too is another story). So for the most part, you face no great financial risk for coverage of those basic medical and hospital services.

But there are some “additional benefits” (e.g., prescription drugs, ground and air ambulance services, and care provided by allied health workers) that are generally not portable outside one’s home province or territory, and they may be relatively costly. (One such instance is the Amy Savill case from 2015.) For example, in Nova Scotia, the emergency ambulance fee payable by the patient is $142.30. In Manitoba it can run from $270 to $530. In other provinces these fees vary quite considerably. And if you’re touring in a relatively remote area and need an air ambulance to get to the nearest appropriate hospital, those rates will be far higher—and will most likely be your responsibility.

What this boils down to is how comfortable you are with a given level of risk.

If you aren’t bothered by the prospect of spending $400, $500 or even $1,000 out of pocket for an unexpected health event, and you’re willing to take the risk, then perhaps private health insurance isn’t for you. There certainly are many people who consider insurance a purchase primarily designed to cover some economically calamitous event—like having a heart attack in Miami.

On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable taking such a risk, and you prefer paying say $300 or $400
to cover your family against the possibility that one of them may unexpectedly need an ambulance ride to a hospital, or a new medication while travelling, then travel insurance is a sound purchase.

Whatever your decision, based it on your policy and your risk and comfort levels. Talk it over with a travel insurance counsellor, or, if you have private health insurance provided by your employer or retirement plan, check it out—you may discover you are already covered.

What you should avoid, however, is neglecting the question “Do I really need private travel insurance to tour my own country?”


Planning a trip? Check out your travel insurance options.

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