Travel Insurance is for Emergencies Only—Forget the Hip Replacement

A Canadian snowbird falls in an Arizona parking lot, breaks her deteriorating hip, and is rushed to a local hospital for emergency care. She quickly realizes that if she is sent back to Ontario, her wait for a new titanium hip could take a year. Guess what she does?

If you guessed that she opts to have her hip replaced in an Arizona hospital, you’re right.  But the price for that quick decision is a heavy one, and in the end, she pays it. Not what she expected. But she can’t say she wasn’t warned.

Every travel insurance plan sold in Canada covers only limited services. It’s not a substitute for your provincial health care: it does not cover hips, or knees, or most heart bypasses, or anything that can wait or be postponed until you can return or are airlifted home—and the decision to do that is the insurer’s, not yours. Travel insurance is for unforeseen emergencies only, not pre-existing conditions, not elective procedures, not continuing care or recurrences of illnesses already treated. If your attending hospital physician agrees you can safely be returned home by commercial flight or air ambulance (and air ambulances today can handle almost any emergency situation), you’re not going to be left languishing in a sunbelt hospital at a cost of $5,000 or $10,000 a day—no matter that the policy you bought promised coverage up to $5 million. That $5 million was not a blank cheque for use at your discretion.

I hear many complaints from snowbirds who say that if they are returned home after a heart attack they may have to wait weeks for an angioplasty repair or bypass, and may even die while waiting. So why wait? Isn’t that why you buy insurance? The bottom line is: No. That’s not why you buy insurance.

Similarly, you can say you prefer to stay on in the warm south to recuperate from surgery rather than return to the cold, snowy north. You can if you want to. Insurers can’t forbid you. But they won’t cover any recurrence of that illness, and they won’t pay for continuing follow-ups once the emergency is taken care of and you are stabilized and fit to travel home. Travel insurance is for the unforeseen, not the predictable.

If insurers were to cover hips, knees, continuing care for hearts, lungs, bypasses, dialysis, and other long-term chronic care, your premiums would be multiples higher than they are now and most snowbirds would have to pack up their wings and buy snowblowers.

Canada’s health care may be a good thing for those who stay at home. But for travellers, it’s a poor deal.

You can’t count on your provincial health care once you leave the country. Private travel insurance is the only option, but you have to know what you’re buying and you have to realize its limitations.

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