Most news stories about travel insurance scare Robert Woodcock.
He only needs coverage a couple of times a year so he and his wife Lynn can drive to Florida. Yet, as they sit by a pool and enjoy the winter sunshine for two or three weeks, he worries.
“I have read stories about people accidentally answering a [medical] question incorrectly and having their claim denied,” he says. “I am terrified of that ever happening to me.”
So far, they have had no health problems while away, and Woodcock feels he is healthy. At age 72 (almost 73) the retired home renovator has the courage to stop hockey pucks for fun. He still works part time, and recently shingled his Toronto home—without help.
“I don’t understand why the insurance companies can’t [give] me some assurance that I am, in fact, covered,” says the straight-talking industry critic. He hopes to take longer trips after he quits hockey.
Reaching Out for Solutions
In frustration, he wrote to personal finance writers, insurance marketers, associations, and politicians. But the replies he received gave neither reassurance, nor the promise of a solution.
“What I would like to see is OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) give me coverage the same as I have at home. I don’t mind paying the provincial plan to cover me, but I want to know that I have coverage and [be sure] that I am not going to be left hanging, and having to deal with a large payout.”
“I was quite disturbed by [a reply from constituency office of Mario Sergio, the Ontario Minister Responsible for Seniors]. Basically they were saying that [travel insurance] has been reviewed in 2011 and that everything is fine. The insurance companies think that it is working okay, but that is certainly not the way I feel about it.
“The Canadian Snowbird Association never even replied [to my letter]. CARP (Canada’s Association for the Fifty-Plus) [gave me] no feeling of concern for their members at all. It was just a case of, ‘well the system is working okay.’ And I was quite startled by that… I thought those were two associations that would be concerned about their members.”
“Right now it’s totally unsatisfactory. I can’t believe that no one is trying to correct it. What I would like to see is OHIP and the various provincial health plans give me coverage the same as I have at home.”
In truth, the Canadian Snowbird Association has lobbied harder than any organization to have provinces restore coverage for out-of-country medical care and get Ottawa to enforce the Canada Health Act. But, after 22 years, there is no sign of movement.
Doing His Own Research: Is It Enough?
‘Builder Bob’, as he calls himself, says that he takes medication to control his blood pressure and a pill to control acid reflux. He had a hernia operation in April of 2013, and before that an operation to remove his gallbladder.
Recalling a swollen vein on his leg five years ago, he worried about a question on the latest insurance application form he completed; it asked him about a cerebrovascular accident (meaning a clot in the brain). His doctor assured him the question did not apply to what Woodock thought was a thrombosis, but was actually superficial phlebitis. Still, Woodcock admits he is worried that the vein condition “might come back to haunt [him].”
Lynn has been able to answer ‘no’ to questions about medical conditions that travel insurers are reluctant to cover. Only recently has she been bothered by arthritis pain in her shoulder—uncomfortable, but not life threatening—and she was prescribed a medication for high blood pressure.
It may be that all the Woodcocks are missing for reassurance is some professional guidance.
“I have talked to several people about having the provincial government take over and run plans that would cover you for out of province, but most people don’t think it will ever happen because the government just doesn’t want to take over the responsibility,” he acknowledges.
Even so, John Thain, president of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada, says insurers are encouraged to see provinces working toward a system of electronic health records. Such a system could eventually mean that travellers could give insurers the permission to (quickly) confirm their eligibility for coverage.
Theoretically, a change to the health record shortly before departure could trigger a warning that an unstable condition could result in the denial of a claim while away. Such a system would not, however, preclude denials for dangerous behaviour, travelling despite a government travel alert, or terrorist attacks or war.
Our Plan to Help Woodcock
Woodcock started out as a banker, but was let go without a pension after 22 years of service. Since then he has worked and saved, relying entirely on word-of-mouth referrals to do kitchen and bathroom renovations.
So if they had a major medical emergency while away, they know they would not have enough savings to pay the cost without insurance. They would have to sell the cottage they bought from Lynn’s parents in 1979, and deprive their four children of that probable inheritance.
So, for Bob’s sake (and that of other Canadian travellers), we have resolved to investigate his concerns, find out what portion of claims are denied, and learn the reasons why. We will try to show him and others how to gauge and limit their own vulnerability.
What’s next for Woodcock?
Future stories will explore Woodcock’s concerns from a historical perspective. A doctor who is well-schooled in travel insurance will look over Woodcock’s health records, and offer an opinion on whether there is a more suitable policy than the one he selected for a recent trip. We will chat with insurance industry experts, and maybe even a lawyer or two!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, Why the Provinces Won’t Offer Bob’s Dream Coverage…