Does Your Health Insurance Cover You While You Travel?

by  Alex Schechter | Dec 10, 2013
Passport / goodmoments/iStock

For the chronic worriers among us, the possibility of disaster always lurks in the not-too-distant future. Back home, our health insurance plans – to some extent – help bring peace of mind. But once you touch down on foreign soil, how much protection does your health insurance plan actually provide? In the interest of traveling with an easy conscience, and, of course, saving hundreds, if not thousands, in out-of-pocket medical bills, here are five things to know about getting sick or injured while traveling abroad:

Most insurance plans cover emergencies only
Your insurance plan, if you're lucky enough to have one, will cover you, but only in emergencies. That means as long as you're dealing with something more serious than a sore throat or a routine check-up – say, for example, a broken bone, or loss of blood – you can submit your claim and be reimbursed for your medical expenses (depending, of course, on the specifics of your plan) once you return home.

Ask for the correct paperwork
In the event that you do have an emergency, and are forced to visit the hospital while traveling, be prepared for a lengthy, cumbersome process to get that claim paid for back home. In order to do that, insurance companies usually require a bill from the hospital you visited, translated into English, as well as a comprehensive list of all services provided. Contacting hospitals abroad can be tricky once you return home. Ultimately, once everything has been correctly submitted,  you will get reimbursed based on the amount the services would have cost in the US.

Supplemental plans don't make sense unless you're away for more than 6 months
Insurance companies offer something called an "international plan," which provides a full package with benefits (prescriptions, hospitalization fees, doctor coverage, etc) similar to the ones you already receive at home. The problem? It's only available to those traveling for longer than six months (say, a group of executives embarking on a year-long residency at the Hong Kong office). On a quick 10-day trip to the Caribbean, you'll be covered for emergencies, but not much else.

Travel insurance is not health insurance
One common mistake travelers make is to assume travel insurance guarantees medical coverage: not so. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, travel insurance in fact offers little to no medical protection. So what can travel insurance help you with? Replacing lost or stolen items, baggage protection, cancellation coverage (for hotel, flight, and transportation bookings), and accidental death or dismemberment coverage

So, how do you get medical travel insurance?
When gauging your travel-health insurance needs, it’s important to consider any pre-existing medical conditions because these may or may not be insured when you’re abroad. Once you’ve assessed your needs, you can go online and shop around for different short-term health insurance plans. Sites like World Nomad and InsureMyTrip allow you to quickly compare medical insurance prices with various providers, helping you determine the best plan for your trip. Simply fill out the duration, location, and focus of your trip (for example, skiing), plus a bit of information about you, and the site pulls up a range of insurance rates and plans – think of it like Kayak but for medical travel insurance.

Additional reporting by Tom Burson.

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