Travel Insurance for Imperfect Health: How to Buy

Contrary to some of the media reports and “exposés,” travel insurers are very sensitive to the needs of travellers in less than perfect health.  They have to be: that’s most of us.

If they dealt only with super healthy young people, there would be a very small, and not very lucrative market. Consequently, every insurer has a range of products with differing eligibility requirements, medical applications, and medical underwriting rules you need to assess when considering the purchase of their products. You need to pay attention to the requirements, applications and rules.

It would be so much easier if all insurers had to work by the same rules, with the same definitions and standards so you could make direct comparisons of product and price.  But you can’t.

One plan may require you to be taking fewer than four medications, another fewer than two; one may allow you to apply if you have had a stable cardiac condition for three years, another may require five years of stability; one may carry a mandatory $200 deductible, another no deductible but a higher premium; how can you compare?  The short answer is don’t try: not on price.

Wait until you thoroughly assess a plan and see it fits you perfectly, then make your price comparison.

In the end, you’ll find that the price differentials for like products are so small, the comparisons weren’t necessary.

No insurer in the marketplace is going to take a much greater risk covering a recent bypass patient or cancer survivor than another insurer: they can’t afford it.

So what do you need to do?

Make sure you know the eligibility rules of any plan you are applying for.  Read them.  Don’t have an agent summarize them or briefly skim over them on the phone. You need to see them and carefully digest each one in respect to your own health history. If that means delaying your purchase, do so.  Have the eligibility rules and the medical questionnaire you will have to complete, emailed or faxed to you so you can see them yourself and, if necessary, take them to your doctor if you have any doubts or you have a complicated medical history.

If you are on any medication, as most of us are, do you know the purpose of each and every pill:  it’s name, it’s purpose and dosage, whether that dosage has been changed?

If you have been referred for any tests, scans, ultrasounds, MRI’s, blood tests: do you know why you have been referred and what the outcome of the tests has been?  Don’t be satisfied with thinking that because your doctor never followed up to tell you the result of any tests, you don’t need to know.

You do need to know, because your medical application might very well ask if in the last three years you have  been investigated for a cardiovascular, or respiratory, or gastrointestinal problem; and if you don’t know the results of your tests, how can you answer that question accurately and truthfully?

Ask to see a full copy of your insurance contract.  It may run to 40 or 50 pages, but you don’t need to read it all.  Don’t worry too much about the benefits: all Canadian plans are generous and they all cover about the same things.  But look at the Exclusion and Limitations (what they don’t cover).  Look at the definition of pre-existing condition and how the insurer defines a stable or unstable condition. You will be surprised.  It is not the way you or your doctor may define it.  But insurers define the terms and those are the rules you must play by.

If you haven’t yet bought your plan and are just surveying the marketplace, do this homework first.  If you can’t get an actual brochure to read, get one online, and spend an hour going through its key sections.

If you’re going to spend several hundred dollars for coverage, or if you’re in a higher age bracket, a couple of thousand dollars, you need to spend the time to make sure of your purchase. You would do it when buying a new flat screen television, wouldn’t you?  This is a much greater purchase, because buying a policy whose terms don’t fit you, can cost you your life savings.

If you’ve already bought your plan, you have 10 days to look it over and if you’re not certain or are unhappy with your purchase, you can return it and get your money back—except perhaps for a small administrative fee.

Always deal with an agent who knows travel insurance or deal directly with a travel insurance company—face to face, by phone (but with the cautionary provisions discussed above) or online.

Travel insurance is not like auto insurance or homeowners insurance. It’s not just another product a broker or agent can pull off a shelf and apply to you.  It has to fit, and the agent has to know precisely how travel insurance works and how to interpret its terminology.  Not all insurance agents are knowledgeable in travel insurance.  Pick someone you can trust.  Just because an agent has been selling you auto or home for 20 years does not mean he or she knows travel insurance.  An agent’s mistake can end up costing you a great deal.  Be careful.

Your safest bet is to start by calling some of the companies listed on our site. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, keep looking. There are good companies, with good travel plans available. Just make sure your plan is tailor made for you.  This is not something you should buy off the rack.

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