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Household Finances Does your travel insurance policy fit your trip and your health?

The limit on how many days wealthy Canadian retirees are allowed to stay in the U.S. could soon change, but then the tax laws wouldn’t line up with the immigration laws, experts say. There could be serious repercussions for snowbirds who are unaware of all the tax and health-care issues that go along with the legislation.

MIKE HOLLAR/AP

Last winter, Eugene Gushuliak was in the kitchen of his Mexican timeshare when he collapsed and blacked out.

Gushuliak, 73, doesn't remember the events that followed — the ambulance that took him to the Puerto Vallarta hospital, the three specialists enlisted for his care, or the flight that brought him back to Winnipeg.

What he does know is that the three-day hospital stay to treat a heart problem, along with the flight home with his wife, nurse and doctor, added up to $90,000. It was a bill his travel insurance company took care of completely.

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Virginia Gushuliak said she and her husband have been vacationing in Mexico for years and have never taken chances when it came to buying travel insurance.

"It's a gamble. You're gambling that you're going to be well," she said.

Alex Bittner, the head of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada, said while the cost of a policy can put people off, the value should be weighed against the potential of receiving a bill for thousands of dollars for out-of-country emergency care.

He said it's risky to take the cheapest policy without reading the fine print first.

"I always say, know your trip, know your policy and know your health," said Bittner, who is president of the volunteer-run industry group.

"Price is important, obviously. We're all consumers. But coverage is key. Once I establish that the coverage is what I want and what I need, then I can start looking at the price and see if that fits my budget."

Other tips on buying travel insurance:

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  • Ensure that the policy will cover you for the length of your trip and can be extended for any reason.
  • Know what medical conditions and emergencies are covered. For example, some policies exclude treatment stemming from high intensity sports, such as hockey. A parent who buys travel insurance for a child playing in a minor-league hockey tournament in the U.S. should make sure that the policy would cover all medical incidents, whether it’s an on-ice accident or a slip and fall at the hotel pool.
  • Check the payout cap. A good travel insurance plan can have a payout of up to $5 million.
  • Read the fine print on pre-existing health conditions that could result in a rejected claim. Last month, a Saskatoon couple made the news when they were hit with $900,000 medical bill after their baby was born prematurely while on vacation in Hawaii. Even though Jennifer Huculak’s doctor had cleared her for travel, Blue Cross rejected the claim, arguing that she had a pre-existing medical condition that voided the policy, which also expired while Huculak was in hospital in Honolulu.

If you are over 60, an insurance company will usually have you fill out a medical questionnaire, which will be used to calculate the policy premium. Generally, someone under the age of 60 can expect to pay around $15 for a weekend of travel insurance coverage while a snowbird, who plans on spending four months in the U.S., can pay anywhere from $1,000 to more than $5,000.

"Is it expensive? Yes, $5,000 for a senior is a hefty bill," said Bittner. "On the other hand, we're essentially looking at handing a senior a blank cheque and saying: 'Have a wonderful trip and if something happens, we're here for you."'

Travellers should also check to see if major credit cards — usually ones with annual fees — includes travel insurance. Provincial health plans also cover a small portion, usually under 10 per cent, of medical bills incurred during international trips. Emergencies within Canada are fully covered by provincial healthcare plans.

Evan Rachkovsky, a spokesman for the Canadian Snowbird Association, said it's important to buy insurance even if you're travelling just for a day to do some cross-border shopping.

"You're really gambling with your life savings, especially in the U.S. where healthcare rates are exorbitant," he said. "And honesty is always the best policy. If you're lying on your health insurance application, the policy you receive is not worth the paper it's written on."

For the Gushuliaks, they'll be spending six weeks in Mexico in January again this year. Like last time, they've bought travel insurance.

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