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Many retirees have trouble attempting to purchase travel medical insurance, a product that used to be as easy to buy as a click at the end of an online travel-package purchase. (Visit FL)
Many retirees have trouble attempting to purchase travel medical insurance, a product that used to be as easy to buy as a click at the end of an online travel-package purchase. (Visit FL)

Snowbirds buying travel medical insurance face coverage confusion Add to ...

A long-time snowbird, Norm Ullock has watched his travel medical insurance premiums trend upward over the past 20 years.

“The premiums go up because I’m getting older,” Mr. Ullock says. “The minute I turned 60, the premiums tripled.”

Mr. Ullock accepts this reality. “It’s part of the cost of travel,” says the 70-year-old Toronto resident who visits Florida annually.

His confidence in the product itself, however, is shaky: “If I buy insurance, I want to know I’m covered, and I’m never really sure I am.”

It’s a situation many retirees find themselves in when they attempt to purchase travel medical insurance, a product that used to be as easy to buy as a click at the end of an online travel-package purchase.

Mr. Ullock takes issue with the medical questionnaires used by insurers to determine client eligibility for travel medical insurance, which are generally administered when an applicant turns 60. The questions ask would-be travellers about certain health conditions.

However, if someone hasn’t officially been told by a physician that a health issue is serious enough to be flagged on such a questionnaire, they can fail to report it. That opens the door to the insurer voiding the policy over “fraudulent” reporting in the event of a claim.

Mr. Ullock cites the case of a friend who was told he had a slight heart irregularity by his physician but that it was “nothing to worry about.” Applying for travel insurance, the friend happened to query his doctor about it. “The insurer considered it a heart condition,” Mr. Ullock says.

“What that told me is most people don’t know what’s in their medical record,” he says. “My doctor told me to fill out those forms properly, you would need a doctor and a lawyer in the room with you. And at the end of it, you might not be sure you’re covered.”

Confusion also surrounds the insurance itself. Some seniors buy their policies online, without really understanding what kind of coverage they have purchased. Nor have they read the fine print, which can exclude them if they have had even subtle changes in their health.

“People can make mistakes,” concedes Ray Battiston, a travel insurance broker in St. David’s, Ont., and owner of icecoldnorth.com.

And the policies vary widely. While most exclude serious heart conditions, people with end-stage terminal illnesses and those on portable oxygen, Mr. Battiston says that even in high-risk cases, shopping around can yield options. Though some firms won’t sell a policy to a claimant who’s had a medication switch or change in a health condition during the previous 12 months, “we have companies that will go to age 74 with six months of stability.”

He also says being flexible can be very helpful in lowering premiums, which increase annually. Mr. Battiston says more firms are selling policies with $250 deductibles, which can reduce premiums. For those applicants with less-serious heart conditions or diabetes, having a high deductible such as $10,000 can also make travel-insurance premiums less prohibitive. Buying insurance six months before a trip, in the summer (rates go up in the fall), or before a landmark birthday such as 60 – can lock applicants into a lower rate. And shortening a stay or buying insurance for the whole year – rather than just a short trip – can also bring costs down.

Mr. Battiston understandably believes that using a broker can help get the best deal, as they know what policies will fit your situation. “Find a good broker and stick with them.”

Conversely, many websites merely present rates ranked from lowest to highest, without much detail around what’s covered. Lori Yorke, a senior broker with Medi-Quote in Winnipeg, feels it’s buyer beware online. “You get what you pay for: Cheaper is not better.”

She says that with policy definitions changing constantly due to the catastrophic claims insurers incur, interpretation by a qualified person is key. “Some [insurers] change their policies more than their underwear,” she says. “It’s important that you’re getting good advice,” especially if a person has a complicated medical history.

What’s key, experts agree, is to not travel uninsured. ‘“There’s quite a few people who say ‘I’m just going anyway’ – and that happens sometimes,” Mr. Battiston says, adding that 5 per cent of his clients fall into this group. But he cautions that if a person falls sick on vacation in the United States, and racks up a huge claim, they will not be protected. “They will send a bailiff to your door in Canada,” Mr. Battiston says.

Mr. Ullock certainly never wants to find himself in that situation. He plans to consult his doctor if he’s ever in doubt about a question on a travel insurance questionnaire to ensure what his physician has written in his medical file syncs with his responses. But he’s still wary. “I’d like to travel as long as I have the ability to. But am I worried about the future? Absolutely.”

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