Air Ambulance Plans: Good Supplements to Insurance: Not Substitutes

As essential as comprehensive travel health insurance is in planning any trip—short or long–don’t overlook air ambulance assistance plans as possible supplements to basic coverage.

Most Canadian out-of-country travel insurance will provide air repatriation to a hospital at home, if necessary, as part of their benefit package. Many American plans, unless they specify repatriation (not just evacuation), will only transport you to the closest available hospital, whether it’s close to your home or not. Dedicated air ambulance assistance plans—which you can buy for short single trips, long-term or even expatriate travel–at rates starting from $200 to $400 annually for a family, can bring you home, not just drop you at a foreign hospital and leave you there. And that’s a benefit you need to have to consider yourself properly insured.

Will Klein, president of Scottsdale, Arizona-based SkyMed, which offers single trip or annual air ambulance repatriation plans, says that even among Canadians, who have comprehensive out-of-country travel health insurance, there are people whose claims for emergency treatment and repatriation are denied because of pre-existing conditions or other “nuances” in their policy coverages. This leaves them facing the problem of getting themselves home on their own, or remaining in a U.S. hospital at several thousand dollars a day.

“For as little as $1 a day (on an annual membership) they can gain SkyMed services”, says Klein. “Why would anybody in their right mind not consider that a worthwhile investment?”

The fact is that if you encounter a medical emergency you first need to be treated and stabilized in a hospital and for that you either need insurance or you will have to pay. That’s why an air ambulance plan by itself is not total protection. But if you have an air ambulance plan you can be repatriated to a hospital at home as soon as you are stable and your attending doctor clears you for travel. That can usually be done quickly and safely as the modern air ambulance is a highly sophisticated unit—capable of carrying very ill patients very long distances.

Making arrangements for air ambulance transport, getting a hospital bed at home, and making sure you can be safely transported, is a job for professionals. You can’t do that alone. Air ambulances are also very expensive: from $15,000 for a flight from a sunbelt location in the U.S. to a city in Canada, or $75,000 from central Europe back to North America.

With an air ambulance assistance plan, you will be guaranteed a flight back to a hospital in your home community or wherever else you choose to go, so long as your emergency warrants this level of transport. But don’t consider this a free flight home. If all you have is a sprained wrist or you don’t require continuing inpatient hospital care, you’re not going to be flown home in an air ambulance costing several thousand dollars an hour to operate. But even if you have lesser needs, most air ambulance services will assist you if you need a medical assistant or paramedic to accompany you, or if other arrangements are necessary to get you home safely. This is especially important now that most airlines no longer provide medical stretcher services. In any case, you need to read the fine print and clearly understand what the guarantee of repatriation means and what its limitations are.

When shopping for air ambulance repatriation plans, also understand that most do not have their own fleet of aircraft, but charter them from those services best able to get to you quickly and provide the specific needs you have. Global Rescue, an air ambulance assistance firm specializing in rescuing members in the most remote or exotic locations, taps into a network of 180 aircraft in 35 different countries—including helicopters as well as fixed wing aircraft. If need be its rescue teams can immediately link to consulting physicians at Johns Hopkins department of emergency medicine in Baltimore.

MedJet Assist also taps into an international network of medically- equipped aircraft and professionals who, as their promotions claim, can rescue and evacuate members to any hospital of their choosing anywhere in the world. The criterion for evacuating or repatriating members is that they must be inpatients in a hospital more than 150 miles from home and require further inpatient care at the receiving hospital.

Many large corporations too are signing on with air ambulance assistance firms to cover their far flung employees in these dangerous times. But don’t make the mistake of thinking of air ambulances as substitutes for full-service travel insurance. They are supplements to travel health insurance, not substitutes for it. Consider them. Weigh their merits. And above all, read the fine print.

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