Travel Insurers Need To Explain Their Products Better

A recent story in the Globe and Mail recounted the ordeal of a Canadian doctor who was stricken with a life-threatening illness while in Prague, and had difficulty with his repatriation to Canada—even though he had travel insurance.

It appears the insurer, Sun Life Financial Inc., wanted to expedite an air ambulance repatriation before the patient’s wife, also a doctor, thought it prudent to fly her husband over the Atlantic. She ended up seeking alternative medical arrangements for him in Europe and the UK. After much negotiation and three weeks of an expensive extended stay in Prague, the doctor and his wife were repatriated successfully to Toronto by the insurer, although not without concerns that the insurer’s assistance service, Europ Assistance, had exposed their client to undue risk in doing so.

I don’t know the details of this case except for what I read in the Globe, so I won’t comment on whether this was a risky repatriation or not, or whether the doctor-clients were reasonable in challenging the assistance company’s decisions. But when Sun Life was asked to comment on the specifics of the case, their spokespeople apparently punted and claimed “no comment” due to a threat of litigation and privacy issues (even though their clients were quite freely talking about it to the press).

That’s the kind of response you might expect from a politician who has been caught doing something naughty. Here was a perfect opportunity to explain what travel insurance is all about, what it is designed to do, and what it cannot do (i.e., be a substitute for provincial health care). No need to be defensive, or apologetic, about its limitations. This is a niche product, crafted to protect Canadian travellers from unexpected medical emergencies, provide them with immediate assistance, get them stabilized, and bring them home as quickly and safely as possible. And do it for a fraction of the cost of all-inclusive health insurance. Yet travel insurers have traditionally done a poor job of explaining their product or doing any meaningful public education about it.

It’s true that some have oversold their products, suggesting (if not promising) that they will do more than they can. You should not have to read every line of a 38-page brochure to find out what your policy excludes. But we should not forget that travel insurance was largely necessitated by provincial governments, in the early 1990s, virtually abandoning their responsibilities to provide health care to their citizens once they hit the outbound border—despite the fact they had been paying health-dedicated taxes for those benefits all or most of their lives. Without private travel insurers coming into the marketplace with supplementary programs to cover what their governments refused to pay, millions of Canadians could not afford to travel anywhere out of the country today.

I would be interested to know how much of the bill OHIP paid to treat and repatriate Sun Life’s clients in this case. I never will, but I’ll bet it won’t be more than 10 per cent.

Here’s an example of that same government largesse from an earlier storyWhile cycling in Spain, a young Canadian had a serious accident that resulted in a hospital and repatriation bill that ran to $22,727.50. It was paid by his travel insurer. As its “share,” OHIP paid $974.20.

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