Stripped to its basics, emergency medical coverage in a travel insurance plan is only good for a fixed duration with defined trip dates and protects you when you travel away from home – for most travel insurance plans, that means more than 100 miles from your home.
It typically can cover the most important expenses related to emergency medical treatment, including:
- Services of a physician or registered nurse
- Hospital charges
- Local ambulance services to or from a hospital
- Artificial limbs, artificial eyes, artificial teeth, or other prosthetics
- Emergency dental treatment
Emergency travel medical insurance is either primary or secondary coverage in a traditional travel insurance plan. This coverage doesn’t typically concern itself with networks and deductibles or copays. It pays up to its limits listed on the policy for covered expenses, and when it hits its limits, it stops paying. Simple as that.
Because it is so simple, emergency medical travel health insurance can avoid some of the complications of conventional medical insurance. Payment to a provider can be activated with a phone call or electronic communication, so treatment can commence immediately, even if the travel insurance plan you purchased lists medical expense coverage as secondary.
If the coverage is primary and the medical condition is severe, the emergency medical insurance can buy time until pre-authorization processes are completed and the patient’s primary health plan can kick in.
Finally, medical case-management specialists who work with travel insurance companies often can act as liaisons between the treating providers and the patient’s primary health plan, making it easier to coordinate care and coverage.
In all, emergency travel medical insurance can play a vital role in securing and paying for crucial emergency medical treatment overseas.
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What travel medical insurance doesn’t cover
However, emergency travel medical coverage, at its core, is still insurance, and not a carte-blanche-covers-everything plan. There are often medical expense coverage exclusions listing things it doesn’t cover.
Every policy is different and you need to read your policy for the full list, but it’s important to understand before you leave if your travel insurance plan covers:
- Routine physical exams (hint: most don’t)
- Pregnancy and childbirth
- Mental health care
- Alcohol or substance-abuse treatment
- Experimental treatments
- Prescription drugs
- Replacement of hearing aids, eyeglasses, contact lenses, or sunglasses
- Medically unnecessary procedures
- Travel for the purpose of receiving medical care
If you have questions about what’s covered, it’s important to ask those questions before you leave – and ideally before you buy, so that if a plan doesn’t cover everything you want covered you can shop around for a different plan.
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Primary vs. secondary
The concept of primary vs. secondary coverage is one of the core features of all insurance, even travel insurance.
Travel medical coverage is often secondary to a traveler’s traditional health plan, meaning your traditional health plan would pay first applying copays and deductibles and other factors – if it even covers travel medical expenses internationally – and then the travel medical coverage of your travel insurance plan (because it is secondary) can kick in.
While that makes sense on a basic level, travelers often grapple with their traditional health plan providers on what is covered and what is not. The ideal is to actually consider purchasing a travel insurance plan that lists the medical coverage as primary, so it can handle all the upfront covered costs and efficiently coordinate care, and then have your traditional health plan on standby in case costs blow through the travel health plan’s limits.
Key tip: Securing your travel emergency medical expense coverage as primary with most travel insurance providers often requires customers to buy immediately, generally within two weeks of making their initial trip deposit.
If a traveler knows they’re going to buy travel insurance for a trip, it may make sense to buy it within this two-week window just for this alone. It can be a big deal.
Travel insurance is most popular among travelers over the age of 55 – who just happen to be the starting and continual age demographic most likely to have pre-existing conditions that could affect their travel.
Travel insurance could certainly provide much-needed protection against medical emergencies that flare up from pre-existing conditions while traveling, it’s just important travel insurance purchasers understand that coverage is typically tied to buying a travel insurance plan within two weeks of an initial trip deposit.
Coverage for pre-existing conditions by buying travel insurance immediately after making an initial trip deposit can be a no-brainer.
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Emergency medical evacuation
Emergency medical evacuation coverage helps coordinate and pay for a qualified medical evacuation of a traveler to an appropriate care facility if they have a medical issue while they’re traveling.
Sometimes this evacuation is simple and inexpensive – an ambulance ride across London to a hospital, for instance. At other times it can be extremely dangerous, delicate, and complex, with costs pushing well over $250,000.
As with just about everything else in insurance, coverage varies by provider and from plan to plan. What you’re looking for is:
- A coverage limit amount that you feel most comfortable with based on where you're traveling
- Coverage for transport to an adequate medical facility, not just the nearest facility
- Coverage for a traveling companion as the patient is transported to a treatment facility
- Emergency travel services with assistance that will coordinate all of this for you
How do you determine whether your plan has this coverage? Read your policy or call your travel insurance provider to ask.
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