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Make sure your health insurance is a good traveler

Foreign travel is exciting, but it can turn into more of an adventure than you planned if you discover that your domestic medical coverage isn't the right international prescription.

"What many Americans don't realize is that their health insurance doesn't necessarily travel," says Dan McGinnity, spokesmqan for Travel Guard International in Stevens Point, Wisc. This warning applies to all types of coverage, from health maintenance organizations to indemnity plans.

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Dan Glunt, an agent with Fort Point Insurance Services in San Francisco, agrees. It's really hit or miss whether your health plan will cover you if you travel abroad and require medical care, says Glunt.

Even when a policy does cover illness and injury abroad, it might not work exactly as it does at home. Don't be surprised if you have to pay upfront and wait for insurance reimbursement of your medical costs after you return to the United States. If you're traveling to a locale that has limited acceptance of credit cards and you don't have enough cash on hand, such limitations could mean the difference between good, bad or no treatment at all.

And even when your medical coverage extends beyond borders, you still could face higher co-payments or find the reimbursement amount is less than if you were treated in the United States, McGinnity says. It's similar to the higher costs you pay domestically when you go outside your plan's network of doctors for treatment.

Beware of policy gaps
There can also be gaps in coverage. Even the best health insurance plans normally do not cover medical evacuations. This can be particularly costly when you travel in an area with few roads and even fewer hospitals.

"Getting airlifted is expensive and most certainly not all of your out-of-pocket expenses for a catastrophic medical event will be covered," says Glunt.

A trekker in Nepal who is gored by a yak, for example, would probably require helicopter transport to the Nepali capital Kathmandu and, if the severity of injuries demanded it, be evacuated to a larger hospital in Bangkok. Medical evacuations can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 an hour, depending on the care required, says Robert Valente, senior vice president of global services for Tempe, Ariz.-based MedAire Inc., which provides medical and health services to travelers.

If you're lucky enough to be a member of a plan that covers medical transport, beware of caps. "Most health insurance plans, I can't say all, but most cap that coverage at $500 to $1,000," McGinnity says. "It's designed to cover the cost of an ambulance coming to your house, not a helicopter landing on a cruise ship."

-- Posted: April 8, 2005




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