Lying in a hospital bed in the Amazonian rain forest town of Tena, Ecuador, with a broken back, Justin Oliver knew it would likely be another 30 to 45 minutes of elevator music before someone would answer his call to Allianz Global Assistance, his travel insurance.
An X-ray showed that Mr. Oliver, a 44-year-old Toronto accountant, had a lumbar fracture, the result of a sleepwalking fall off a six-metre-high balcony the night before, on Feb. 16. Doctors told him he should undergo surgery as soon as possible – at a larger hospital in the capital, Quito – or he may become paralyzed from the waist down. And yet when Mr. Oliver picked up his cellphone to update his case manager at Allianz, it was, once again, the recorded tune that greeted him, he said.
“Please help!!!” Mr. Oliver wrote in a panicked e-mail to Allianz from Tena’s Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra hospital. “My back is broken and they need to transfer me, I need a translator and they want to do surgery right away. Your 1-800 line never picks up and this is very urgent.”
Mr. Oliver’s experience is likely a symptom of how travel insurers are struggling to keep up with soaring demand as scores of Canadians flock to tourist destinations and more of them take out insurance amid widespread flight disruptions and lingering public-health concerns.
On its home page, Allianz Global Assistance, which sells travel insurance in Canada, warns customers of call times potentially exceeding 30 minutes and claim-processing taking up to eight weeks amid “higher than average” call and claim volumes. Allianz Global Assistance is a registered business name of AZGA Service Canada Inc. and AZGA Insurance Agency Canada Ltd., two subsidiaries of Allianz Group.
While emergency medical calls are always answered first, “call volumes can fluctuate unexpectedly during the busy winter travel season, occasionally leading to longer wait times,” Dan Keon, vice-president of marketing and insights at Allianz Global Assistance Canada, said in an e-mailed statement. Mr. Keon, however, said his company is “prepared and fully staffed” for the current travel season.
Martin Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurance brokerage Travel Secure, said he’s recently heard from clients struggling to reach their insurance providers during travel.
That includes travellers who called to seek assistance in a medical emergency only to hear a taped message at the other end of the line, “which really is bad because that’s hardly the service that we want or that people expect when they buy a policy,” he said.
Isabelle Beaudoin, president and co-founder of insurance broker First Rate Insurance Inc., described dealing with an “unprecedented” amount of travel insurance requests this winter. “I would not be surprised if it translates into longer wait times getting through the insurer during travel,” she said by e-mail.
In a recent survey conducted by Research + Knowledge = Insights for insurer Blue Cross of Canada, 42 per cent of respondents said they are now more likely to buy travel insurance coverage when planning a trip than in the past.
For Mr. Oliver, medical travel insurance through Allianz was part of the benefits of his BMO Ascend World Elite Mastercard. Canadians can also purchase additional or separate coverage for medical emergencies while they’re away from home. Rates can be as low as less than $20 a person for a one-week trip, according to quotes from financial comparisons site Rates.ca. However, costs vary depending on a variety of factors such as the age and health profile of the insured, the trip’s destination, and duration and the amount of coverage selected.
Faced with unusually high demand, travel insurance providers are struggling to ramp up staffing because of widespread labour shortages, Mr. Firestone said. And Canada’s own health care crisis can at times add to delays repatriating injured travellers when domestic hospitals have no room to accommodate them, he said.
“Travel insurance brings you back to your home province – assuming there is a bed available for them to take you,” Mr. Firestone said.
In Mr. Oliver’s case, the delays compounded an already high-stakes medical emergency. His nighttime fall occurred while he was vacationing alone at a wellness resort in the Amazon jungle. When Allianz told him it may take up to 48 hours to fetch an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital in Tena, he decided to hire a private car instead, he said.
On the advice of his chiropractor, he laid down sideways in the back of the car through the 40-kilometre ride to avoid putting pressure on the spine.
At the hospital in Tena, Mr. Oliver said he had to ask the hospital staff to wheel his bed next to one of the few working electrical plugs at the facility – in a crowded hall where people kept bumping into him – to keep his phone battery from dying while he waited on the line with Allianz.
Once, a receptionist transferred him to a nursing team but no one picked up the phone, he said. When his mother first called Allianz from Grand Bend, Ont., to ask for an update on his case, she waited an hour before the call ended with no answer, according to e-mails reviewed by The Globe and Mail.
In the end, Mr. Oliver underwent a successful surgical operation at Quito’s highly regarded Hospital Metropolitano, where doctors inserted two metal rods and four screws into his lower back to stabilize his spine. He can walk again, though with the help of a cane.
But while the hospital was supposed to be able to charge Allianz directly for the expense, Allianz said it might have initially sent the guarantee of payment to the wrong hospital. As a result, doctors asked Mr. Oliver to pay a 10-per-cent deposit, which worked out to $3,348, out of pocket.
Mr. Oliver said he has yet to receive reimbursement for that expense, as well as $200 he spent on the hired car, which Allianz has also agreed to cover.
On a recent call to the insurer from Canada, Mr. Oliver said he waited more than an hour-and-a-half listening to the now-familiar music loop.
“I can’t ever hear that music again – ever in my life,” he said.
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