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International Health Insurance

Learn about international health insurance and whether or not it should be purchased before traveling abroad.

A frequent traveler may want to invest in international health insurance. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
A frequent traveler may want to invest in international health insurance.

International health insurance is often the last thing on the mind of the adventurous traveler. When traveling abroad, it is easy to be caught up in the excitement of a new culture and the possibility of falling ill or having an accident far from home is often overlooked. International health insurance can help avoid a calamitous situation and give travelers a sense of security.

What is international health insurance?

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, U.S.-based health insurance is often limited to coverage of health issues within the United States. Even though some insurance companies offer emergency coverage for customers traveling abroad, companies seldom cover pre-existing conditions, as well as a host of other possible medical expenses that may occur while traveling. International health insurance refers to travel-specific insurance policies meant to provide coverage to individuals as they travel outside of their home country. It can be in lieu of U.S.-based insurance or act as a supplement to existing coverage.

Should one purchase additional coverage?

The U.S. Department of State explains a number of reasons to purchase additional insurance or international health insurance when traveling abroad. When determining whether an individual needs to purchase additional health insurance, it is important to consider the following:

  • Many U.S.-based insurance companies and policies do not include foreign travel coverage
  • Countries that offer national health insurance (socialized medicine) may not offer the same standard of coverage as an American hospital
  • Many countries will not treat visitors who have no proof of health insurance
  • U.S.-based federal coverage, such as Medicaid and Social Security, will not apply to overseas care
  • An individual country may insist on proof of international health insurance upon entry into the country

It is always a good idea for potential vacationers to research the health system of the country they intend to visit and gather information about any country-specific health insurance regulations. If an individual reviews his or her current policy and sees no section regarding international travel, additional coverage is essential for safety and health.

What does vacation insurance cover?

The scope of international health or travel insurance is determined by the specifics of a given policy, with the rule of thumb being the more the plan costs, the more comprehensive the coverage. Basic international health insurance should cover:

  • Out-of-pocket expenses, such as cash down payments or emergency room visits
  • Pre-existing health conditions
  • Prescriptions and refills
  • Injuries resulting from participation in extreme sports, like bungee jumping or snowboarding 
  • Direct payment to doctors and hospitals abroad (rather than reimbursement of out-of-pocket payments)
  • Major surgeries and hospital stays
  • Transference to another country if the host country cannot supply needed medical services

Travelers must read the fine print of any insurance policy to understand the full scope of coverage. Even if the aforementioned items are covered, there may be a maximum for how much the insurance company will cover.

What is medical evacuation insurance?

Even if the savvy traveler purchases additional health insurance to provide extra coverage while abroad, that policy may not cover medical evacuation. Medical evacuation becomes necessary when a patient's needs cannot be met by the host country and the patient must be transported to a neighboring country or back to the United States for treatment. The cost of medical evacuation can be as high as $90,000 and is often not covered by travel insurance, international health insurance or U.S.-based health insurance.

Medical evacuation insurance covers the cost of an air ambulance and the services of a doctor or nurse during the evacuation. Often these services are typically only necessary in the case of severe injury or illness. The choice of purchasing this additional coverage may depend on the proposed destination as well as the activities the traveler intends to participate in. Individuals wishing to enjoy extreme sports, dangerous hikes or obscure safaris, where the risk of serious injury is greater, should seriously consider medical evacuation coverage.

How is travel insurance purchased?

A number of options exist for purchasing health insurance. Many travel agencies suggest and offer coverage at the time the vacation is booked. U.S.-based private insurance companies offer foreign travel insurance or can recommend a reputable company to assist their customers. Policies should be within the budget of the traveler and offer enough coverage to ensure the traveler's comfort, health and peace of mind.

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