If You Leave without Travel Insurance, Be Prepared to Pay For Health Care

It’s easy for Canadians to be complacent about health care. For the most part, it’s there for the asking. It’s part of the culture. But cross the border and you’re on your own. From that point on, you pay for any health care you use.

Yet a recent Ipsos poll done for RBC this summer showed that when travelling to the United States, a majority of Canadians failed to consistently buy travel insurance despite knowing that the US has the highest health care costs in the world, and that their government insurance won’t protect them abroad. (Across all age groups, 48 per cent said they never or rarely bought such insurance, while another 7 per cent said they only occasionally bought it.)

And it’s not only in the US that medical emergencies can cost thousands of dollars per day. Health care is horrendously expensive wherever you go—even in Canada, as any foreign traveller who has had a medical emergency in Toronto or Vancouver can tell you. Remember that Canada’s provincial health insurance plans do not have reciprocity with any other countries. And programs such as Britain’s National Health Service or the European social insurance programs will not cover you. You will have to pay the rate that all foreigners pay, and unless you have travel health insurance, that could be a ruinous cost. You’ll also be expected to pay it, or sign for it, before you are discharged from the hospital.

I know of claims right now that are being negotiated between Canadian insurers and foreign hospitals that run over $400,000, some over $1 million. And some of these cases involve people who considered themselves healthy when they left Canada.

On the other hand, there are people like Ray Macklin, a farmer from Sarnia, Ontario, who last year stepped on a pygmy rattler while visiting Florida’s Everglades National Park. After being airlifted to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Miami, Ray spent four days under some pretty intensive care being treated with anti-venom. Luckily, he left the hospital not only healthy but happy, as his bill of about $44,000 was paid by a Canadian insurer—all except for the $7,000 which he had elected to pay as a deductible when he bought his insurance.

Says Ray now, there is “no way” he would leave the country without travel insurance. Snake bite—who would have thought?

Where would Ray have been without insurance? OHIP might have paid up to its daily limit of $400, but no guarantee of that. If Ray was a resident of BC he would have received $75 a day. If he was from Alberta, maybe $100.

Right now you may be planning your winter vacation in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, or the southern United States. Make sure your plans include out-of-country travel insurance that covers you for at least $1 million, makes direct payment on your behalf to the foreign hospitals and doctors who treat you, assures you of air repatriation to a hospital close to home if medically warranted (evacuation to the nearest hospital is not good enough), and is accessible to you 24/7 wherever you go. And if you purchase an all-inclusive package trip, make sure it provides this kind of coverage. They don’t always. If not, buy your own insurance.

Most Canadian travel insurers can pretty well cover you anywhere. And if you are prepaying any part of your trip, consider trip cancellation benefits. They can provide some financial protection for your investment in case something goes wrong in the interim. Above all, make sure you have a contract spelling out your benefits and exclusions—and READ IT.

I have spent many years as a travel insurance ombudsman and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard clients complain that they never bothered to read the fine print, or even the summary. They just took the selling agent’s word that “they were covered for everything.” You are never covered for everything.

When purchasing travel health insurance, deal with agents who specialize in this product. If they sound unsure about what they are selling or you’re not satisfied with their answers, move on. If you need help, consult the list of Canadian travel plans on this site, or locate reputable brokers in your community, many of whom can sell the products listed here.

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