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Trick Insurance?
no - it's not a hairpiece, just a bad haircut
by Joe Harkins - Oct 13, 98

    Few things are more stressful than becoming ill while traveling outside the country. To complicate matters at a bad time, health insurance, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, all become totally useless as soon as you leave the United States.

    What if you need care that isn’t available where you are visiting? X-ray machines and highly trained doctors don’t exist everywhere.

    Don’t ask Uncle Sam to pay for evacuation, even if the illness or accident is fatal. Those expenses are covered only for US  Government employees and members of the armed forces while on duty. Taxpayers or their survivors either dig down deep (watch those puns, Joe) or look to travel insurance.

    But how do you know that your policy will do what you believe is required when a medical emergency arises outside the country?

    What follows is a true story. In preparation for this week’s Travel The Net, we sent it to companies who sell travel insurance on the Internet. We asked each to explain how it would handle the problem.

    Not very long ago, a cruise ship made an unscheduled stop at a Caribbean island port. A passenger’s severe abdominal pains and fluctuating vital signs seemed beyond the skills of the ship’s medical staff. The plan was to get the man, together with his wife, to the nearby airport for an evacuation flight to Miami an hour and a half away.

    The "ambulance" that met the landing boat was actually a battered old van with the seats removed. Red crosses were crudely painted on the side of the van but the paint had been too thin and it had run, looking ominously like a bleeding wound.

    The doctor who came with the vehicle explained that the couple’s insurance company, after speaking with the wife over the ship’s phone, had called him to meet the boat and keep the patient at his clinic awaiting the ambulance plane.

    The "clinic" was filthy beyond description. There was no air-conditioning. A roaring fan was placed less than 24 inches from the man’s face. The strings of greasy dust that hung from the wire fan-guard fluttered vigorously like ragged gray ribbons. The bed linens had not been changed and were soiled.

    Moments later, the doctor came in and said he’d spoken to the insurance company. "Every thing is arranged. I’ve assured them we have all the facilities required. They’ve cancelled the air ambulance and given me approval for exploratory surgery immediately."

    The woman responded that if the doctor dared touch her husband she would " . . . send people to track you down and kill you like a dog." He blanched and walked away.

    She phoned the insurance company from a nearby public phone using her credit card. They were adamant in citing the fine print of the policy that evacuation was not covered when "local care" exists. Her description of the clinic was rejected. "The doctor is licensed. If the patient refuses his care, we have no further responsibility."

    She then called Miami, got phone numbers from the Yellow Pages operator and summoned an air ambulance, complete with medical staff, all of which she put on her American Express Platinum Card. They evacuated the man and wife to Miami’s Dade County Hospital. After light sedation and inconclusive tests, he was placed under constant observation in an Intensive Care unit. By morning he was normal. No pain. No symptoms. Diagnosis suggested he may have had a minor intestinal infection compounded by an anxiety attack.

    The wife had prevented an "exploratory operation" that might have proven fatal but the evacuation had cost more than $25,000. As she explained with grim humor in a phone call to a reporter a few days later, "It would have cost me a lot more than that to bury him."

    Oh, by the way, not one of the dozens of the online travel insurance sellers we queried for advice on how they would have handled the call for help ever responded.


The following links, not published with the print version of the column, will provide an overview of the issue.

Extra Extra - In a departure from our usual style, the print version of this week's column doesn't list any links within the column itself. There must be thousands of web pages that sell travel insurance for every page that offers genuinely useful and independent information about how to choose it and get what what you pay for.

Insurance News Network
INN is one of those rare sites. Check out the links to the various regulatory agencies that can help you resolve problems. The article on how to evaluate coverage and minimize costs is one of the few I found online despite days of intensive searching. It runs more than one page so be sure to click on the link at the end of each section.

Worth Magazine article
Few of the 500,000 Americans who will need immediate medical attention outside the United States will face the drastic situation described above. However, some useful resources are listed for those who want peace of mind and genuine security.

Genuinely Weird (and crooked) Mentality
At times WWW exceeds the Twilight Zone in strangeness. A search on the phrase "travel insurance" using a popular search engine reveals a truly stupid and useless deception. A company that sells credit card services to sleazy online gambling casinos and "adult" porn sites has managed to manipulate and trick search engines. They appear in the listings with names such as, and almost a dozen others, each claiming to be a source of information about travel insurance. No matter which you click on, you always go to the web page for "" What they gain by this trickery eludes my usually devious imagination.

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