Canadian travellers stuck abroad may find themselves without emergency medical coverage as some insurers impose a March 31 deadline when coverage will expire while refusing extensions for people showing signs of COVID-19.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians to return home while they still can, but made it clear that anyone with symptoms of the virus will not be allowed to travel to Canada until they have recovered.
Canadians showing signs of the novel coronavirus will need to remain quarantined for 14 days in the country they are currently visiting, and not be allowed to board any flights to Canada. For some, that could mean a lapse in their current emergency medical coverage.
The uncertainty in guidance issued by travel insurers – which has been changing by the day in some cases – has left thousands of Canadians unsure of whether they will be covered while they attempt to get home or remain under quarantine.
Out-of-country medical policy coverage can range from $2-million to $10-million a person. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues, insurance companies have deemed the virus a “known event,” which could mean they are not covered for the illness.
Last week, several retired teacher associations alerted their members – many of whom are snowbirds vacationing in the southern United States – that emergency medical coverage provided by their association would be expiring at 11:59 pm on March 23. The policy change was triggered by a March 13 travel advisory to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada.
Many insurance policies allow an individual to purchase an extension or top-up to their coverage. But to qualify for the extension, most Canadian insurance companies require the policyholder to answer several qualifying questions.
Two common questions asked before an extension is granted is whether an insured person is in good health and knows no reason to seek medical attention, and whether he or she has been examined or treated by any physician or been advised by a physician to seek treatment, says Marty Firestone, president of Travel Secure, a seller of travel medical coverage.
“Automatically these individuals – who are being turned away from our border due to coronavirus symptoms – are not going to be eligible to top up or extend their coverage,” Mr. Firestone said.
Canadians who are stranded abroad can apply for an emergency loan from Global Affairs Canada of up to $5,000 for essential needs. But for those without medical coverage, hospital bills can quickly run into the tens of thousands and the government may have to provide further assistance.
“If an elderly traveller comes down with symptoms and ends up in an intensive care room in a hospital, they could be looking at $25,000 a night," he said. “If their insurance has expired, where are they going to turn? I would suspect the government has to have some contingency fund set up to handle people whose travel insurance ended."
Manulife Financial Corp.'s individual travel plans for emergency medical coverage allow for extensions as long as “there has been no event that has resulted, or may result in a claim against the policy,” and “there has been no change in your health status."
Travel insurer Group Medical Service Inc. (GMS) updated its policies to allow clients to extend or top up their coverage until March 31, although the company would not confirm whether people showing symptoms would qualify for the extension.
“[The March 31 deadline] should give clients the additional time they need to arrange travel back to Canada as per the government’s recommendation,” GMS said on its website.
TuGo travel insurance allows clients to purchase a one-time 10-day extension to their travel medical coverage, as long as clients can sign a “health declaration, have not seen a doctor, and have made no claims.”
If clients need more than 10 days, TuGo offers an option to purchase additional days required to provide coverage for travellers who cannot return home because they are quarantined.
One of the country’s largest travel insurers, Allianz Global Assistance Canada, would not confirm to The Globe and Mail whether their medical coverage would be extended for people unable to return to Canada owing to coronavirus symptoms.
"As the COVID-19 situation is evolving rapidly each day, we are reviewing our policies alongside the Canadian government’s border and travel restrictions to ensure we can assist customers abroad in their safe return to Canada,” spokesman Dan Keon said.
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