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Travel medical insurance: Don’t leave home without it

Whether you're planning to travel abroad on vacation or even to take a road trip to visit a neighbouring province, be sure to include travel medical insurance on your 'must-have' list.

According to a recent survey from TD Insurance, many Canadians are taking their chances: 29 per cent incorrectly believe you only need travel insurance if you travel internationally, and 35 per cent admit they have travelled out of their home province without it.

"There's a misperception around travel insurance," says Dave Minor, vice-president, TD Insurance in Toronto. "For instance, provincial plans, though somewhat comprehensive, don't necessarily cover all costs you may incur as a result of a medical emergency of some type."

"Provincial health insurance does not cover non-resident visitors, even if they are family," warns David Hartman, president of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada, in a statement. "The costs of medical care in Canada are higher than people may anticipate."

Isabelle Forget, head of travel, North America at RBC Insurance in Toronto agrees it's commonplace for Canadians to skip buying travel medical insurance. According to an RBC Insurance travel survey from 2011, only 39 per cent of Canucks always purchase travel insurance when travelling stateside. Only 14 per cent of Canadians say they buy travel insurance when visiting another province.

"Most Canadians don't believe they need to purchase travel insurance when travelling to another province within Canada because their provincial health plans will cover their medical costs," she says. "Of international travellers, 56 per cent feel they don't need to buy travel insurance because they have sufficient coverage through work or their credit card."

Getting sick or injured while on vacation isn't only bad timing, it's very expensive. The average out-of-country in-hospital bill can cost up to C$10,000 per day, and the average emergency room visit is $1,000.

Covered with employee benefits?

If you have group insurance coverage through your employer look into what you're covered for before leaving home, whether travelling domestically or internationally, Minor says.

"Some group insurance coverage plans offer medical coverage (abroad) and some do not," he says. "You want to make sure if you are covered to know what you're covered for and what isn't."

RBC Insurance's Forget says travellers should still consider purchasing additional travel insurance even if they are covered through their employer.

"Employment benefits may not cover all medical emergencies and/or it may limit travel benefits or have lifetime maximums," she says. "And they usually don't often offer features such as up-front payments of medical expenses, 24-hour multilingual support, assistance in finding a local doctor or hospital, emergency transportation by air ambulance and coverage extending to children."

Select credit cards also provide travel medical insurance. It's critical to understand what that coverage provides for exactly and to know the restrictions and limitations in advance.

"Depending on which version of a credit card that you hold, it'll have different types of travel insurance," Minor says. "It could be that you're adequately covered and don't need an additional plan. The bottom line for a consumer is making sure you're covered but you don't want to incur additional out-of-pocket expenses by buying more coverage that you may already have."

Minor also highlights the need to be aware of exclusions in your policy, or what's not covered.

"Before I got into this side of the business, I took a family vacation to Mexico. My two teens were doing para sailing while on vacation and everything turned out okay. But little did I know at the time that had they suffered an accident, it wouldn't have been covered by my travel insurance," he admits. "Partaking in risky activities are usually not covered — windsurfing, bungee jumping, parachuting.

"Some companies will provide that coverage but you should consult your insurance company in advance."

Pre-existing conditions

But if you've got what's called a 'pre-existing condition', travel medical insurance can get tricky. Especially for retirees or seniors, this clause can put a serious dent in one's travel plans.

"That means if you've got a pre-existing medical condition that's been diagnosed and you're still being treated for it, it probably won't be covered but you should disclose that to the insurer ahead of time to determine whether you're covered for it or not," he says. "Some policies will not cover pre-existing conditions if it's been diagnosed or medicated within a certain period of time.

"As you get older, you'll find most insurers may require medical underwriting. That means you'll have to get medical tests done in advance."

Because seniors are at a higher risk of being faced with health problems/issues while travelling, it's important that they make sure their policy offers them access to a network of health providers, including hospitals, doctors and nurses, RBC Insurance's Forget adds.

She also recommends seniors ensure their policies includes coverage for communication with a physician to ensure treatment is appropriate and medically necessary, upfront payment of all eligible expenses, a 24-7 multilingual emergency line which you can call from anywhere in the world, and transportation back to Canada or transportation of a companion to your bedside.

What kind of coverage do you need?

As far as basic coverage goes, be sure your travel medical insurance policy provides for:

  • physician's bills

  • hospital accommodation

  • diagnostic tests

  • lab costs

  • ambulance services

  • prescription drugs

  • return airfare/transportation to bedside

But also look to see if there's a deductible involved as some plans have them while others don't. What's the total coverage of your plan? A rule of thumb is the policy should at least be worth $1 million. And make sure your insurance provider pays any bills that arise upfront so you're not out-of-pocket while out of town.

For families, look into what's known as a family plan as it's more economical, TD's Minor remarks, and it'll cover all of your dependents. For individuals, if you're a frequent traveller it may be more beneficial to purchase an annual plan versus paying for a number of temporary ones each time you leave home.

If you're embarking upon a so-called dream vacation, it's worthwhile to think about purchasing bundled coverage instead of individual policies to ensure you're protected against a trip cancellation or interruption, baggage and medical expenses as an inclusive package.