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Blue beach chairs for snowbirds eyeing buying a home in a sunny destination.Richard McGuirk

OTTAWA – It's that time of year again, when Canadian snowbirds start thinking about what kind of medical coverage they'll need in the United States.

Or at least that's what they should be thinking, say experts in the field. The problem is many Canadians don't want to think about the unthinkable – that they may face a catastrophic medical emergency while on vacation and will need to be treated in a U.S. hospital.

According to a recent survey conducted for TD Insurance, only about half of Canadians aged 50 and over bother to check their coverage before leaving for vacation, and only 16 per cent call their insurance provider to determine if they need to update their policy.

"The problem is most people don't do that, or wait until they are at the airport and buy something at the airport without even knowing what they are covered for," says Dave Minor, a vice president responsible for life and health insurance at TD.

Those obtaining insurance should take care to know what they are covered for and what they are not – high risk activities, for instance. And they should declare pre-existing medical conditions, which could cause them to have their claim rejected.

"The horror stories I've heard usually have to do with people who purchase insurance and think they are covered only to find out their claim is being denied because they did not disclose a medical condition they had before travelling," says Minor.

Canadians are accustomed to not worrying about who pays the medical bills; all they need to be concerned about is recovery. In the United States, hospital bills can run as high as $15,000 a day. At that rate, it doesn't take much time to get into serious money.

David Redekop, the principal research associate at the Conference Board, says the issue of Canadians travelling to the U.S., or really any country, without insurance is much more prevalent among ordinary vacationers than so-called snowbirds. There is no official definition of a snowbird, but for the purposes of his research he counts anyone 55 and over who is away for at least 31 consecutive nights.

Redekop has been researching Canadian tourism patterns for more than two decades and says his surveys suggest snowbirds tend to know the score, since they are more than likely to have experience vacationing in southern U.S. states, often stay in the same place, and often have compared notes with other snowbirds.

The risk-takers are the day-trippers or those who only go for a week or two of sun, beach and golf. "What can happen?," they reason.

Plenty, says Redekop and none of it is good.

"If you are not covered in some manner you are at huge risk of losing everything that you own, and it may not even be your fault. It could be somebody running into you with their car. The costs are enormous in a U.S. hospital and your (provincial) insurance will only pay a small portion of that," he says.

There are plenty of insurance companies that will offer travel medical coverage and the costs vary from well under $100 to the thousands depending on age, pre-existing medical conditions and length of uninterrupted stay.

About 1.3 million snowbirds travelled south last year and took out about $200-million on insurance premiums, with the average individual premium about $700, according to Redekop's research. The amount was almost double that for those 65 years and over staying three months or more.

Minor says there's other are forms of coverage snowbirds should consider before leaving.

Many home insurance policies do not specifically cover incidents such as burst pipes, unless the homeowner has made arrangements with a neighbour or friend to regularly check the home, or they have an alarm system.

Most auto insurance policies will cover snowbirds driving their own vehicle in the U.S., but Minor says they should make sure their liability ceiling is high enough for the American court system. He recommends up to $2-million.

All this can add to the cost of a vacation, but it may be the best money they spend.