Travel Insurance: No Game for Rookies

The vernal equinox (spring) is as good a time as any to start thinking about returning to the southern United States next fall and winter for your annual snowbird pilgrimage. And you will have to think and plan well if you are to be adequately covered for your health care.

Travel insurance, with the emphasis on medical coverage, is no peripheral luxury. If you cross the border (be it for six months or four hours for lunch and shopping) and you have no out-of-country insurance, you are extremely negligent or just plain reckless. I apologize in advance if I have just hurt some of your feelings, but feelings can be repaired: financial catastrophe, or the untimely death of a loved one, can’t.

I have lived in the US and Canada about equal amounts of time, and in my line of work—medical writing—it has been my responsibility to learn and assess how medical systems, and the doctors and other professionals who propel them, function and serve those of us who rely on them.

Related: Teach Your Doctor about Travel Insurance

Quite contrary to allegations about how disorganized, expensive, ruthless, and mercenary the US health care system is (often made by foreign journalists or research specialists looking for a sensational story), I have always found the quality of care excellent and the doctors and nurses who have cared for me and my family helpful, generous with their time, and truly devoted to giving the best they’ve got. Many Canadian snowbirds treated in the US have echoed that same sentiment to me. At the same time, I have been (and still am) shocked by the numbers of people—of any age—who have been locked out of the system (about 15 per cent) and who have gone without care, or in many cases died. That must be fixed. Many Americans, I among them, fear this latest attempt, the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare), is not the way to do it.

Last week, while in Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale for a routine test, I was chatting with a young neurologist about family stuff—schools, sports, kids—and I mentioned that my pre-teen grandson, Zachary, is really interested in becoming a surgeon, and I believe he is mentally equipped to be a good one. Before I completed the sentence, he was shaking his head and saying, “No, no, no. Tell him to be a lawyer, or a financier … anything but a doctor.” And he was serious. Worse yet, I have been getting the same reaction from doctors in all parts of the country who grieve at the fact they spend most of their time doing paperwork, complying with government or insurance company regulations, losing patients because their insurance company has dropped them from their network, and putting patients on hold for weeks or months at a time to serve other masters first.

Yes, doctors in the US still make good money—most of them—and I don’t begrudge them a nickel. To me, and probably to you too, they’re worth more than any hockey player, even one who plays for the Leafs. They still have a team in Toronto, don’t they?

What has this to do with you? Plenty.

The point here is to warn you that as the US health care system goes through its metamorphosis, you will be affected in many ways: when you present to an emergency department; if and when you are asked about your health insurance; when a deposit is demanded of you; if and when you are told there will be a delay in referring you to neurology (no one available just now); or if the surgeon who took out your gallbladder wants you for follow-up in one week, but the insurance  that covered you in hospital doesn’t cover your surgeon’s follow-up once you are in his private practice, so you have to pay him directly—cash on the barrelhead (this last one has happened to me—but  not with the gallbladder). I’m not suggesting American health care is going to fall apart, not by a long shot. But it’s going to be different, and you’re going to need expert help in navigating your way through.

Related: Are Canadian Snowbirds About to Get Plucked by Obamacare?

When you buy seasonal, supplemental health insurance to cover your stay in the US you need to know exactly what you’re buying, how the products you are considering meet your individual needs—not your neighbour’s, but yours—and how well your travel health insurance company is connected to the hospitals and doctors you may need.

In short, we have the expertise to help you do that. Don’t do it alone. Canadian health insurance companies normally work through intermediaries in the US or other host countries: assistance companies, health care provider networks, other domestic health insurers, case managers, air ambulance providers—this is a very complicated business, and you need the best working for you. It’s something you, as an individual, cannot properly do.

This forthcoming season is going to be a turbulent one. With the loonie at its current level, I believe Canadian travel health insurers will be forced to consider hiking their premiums.  You can’t pay hospitals and doctors in US. dollars while collecting premiums in lowly loonies without making adjustments.

Travel insurance is not a casual purchase, even though many insurance sellers promote it as such. This forthcoming summer and fall, we will be guiding you through your selection process:  assessing new products, advising what you should look for and what you should avoid, suggesting ways you can save money, updating you on the new border-crossing rules, and answering your concerns about travel risks as they develop around the world.

Stay with us and we’ll try to keep you safe, up to date, and save you money in the process.

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