Personal Finance

Here's how to get overseas medical coverage as coronavirus spreads

Key Points
  • Most comprehensive travel insurance plans include emergency medical, dental and evacuation coverage. Some, but not all, insurers are still offering such policies.
  • Cheaper medical-only policies are also available, from single trips to annual, multi-journey plans. All policies also can include 24-hour assistance, translation services and prepayment to medical providers.
  • Travel insurer Seven Corners still covers expenses associated with illnesses such as coronavirus during travel, while two-thirds of insurers that website SquareMouth.com works with have suspended that coverage.

If you plan to travel abroad and are worried about medical coverage due to the coronavirus outbreak, there may not be a need to panic — or cancel your trip — just yet.

Travel insurance policies that include emergency medical and evacuation coverage are still available, although the situation is fluid and could change as the coronavirus spreads, say insurers and brokers.

"About a third of our providers are still offering coverage for medical emergencies while traveling abroad," said Kasara Barto, spokesperson for website SquareMouth.com, which lets users compare policies from 22 insurers. "Travelers who are still planning on going, aren't worried about canceling and just want to be covered for medical only can find standard comprehensive travel insurance policies that will cover that."

Passengers with protective face masks walk with their luggage in the empty arrival hall of Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam.
MLADEN ANTONOV

Among the other two-thirds of insurers with which SquareMouth partners, some now completely exclude coverage for coronavirus-related emergencies, while others may extend coverage, but on a case-by-case basis.

"If a traveler is looking specifically for medical coverage for the coronavirus, we recommend they contact the provider directly to clarify their coverage," Barto said.

SquareMouth.com, which saw a 400% jump in coronavirus-related customer inquiries this week, has posted webpages with both general information about the disease and travel insurance, and specific provider position statements.

International travel insurance and specialty benefit management company Seven Corners has not changed the parameters of any of its policies in light of the outbreak, according to president Jeremy Murchland. The Indianapolis-based firm sells both comprehensive travel insurance policies and medical coverage-only plans.

"You're still able to buy a policy, either our comprehensive travel insurance or travel medical," both of which include emergency medical coverage, he said, although there may be limitations on trip cancellation, depending on date of purchase.

More from Personal Finance:
How to make money when your flight's delayed
This app eases clearing U.S. customs, immigration
How to pick the best travel rewards credit card

(If you're not mainly looking for medical coverage after departure but a simple hedge against possible cancellation due to coronavirus, a "cancel for any reason" policy is now recommended, as insurers are classifying the outbreak as a "known event" and will not allow cancellations of most other types of travel policies for it.)

"If you become ill with coronavirus while you're traveling, your medical expenses will be covered under our travel medical policy," Murchland said, as will emergency medical evacuation and repatriation — if Seven Corners can find a means to get policyholders home.

"Some emergency medical evacuation providers and even airlines have restricted or eliminated services, which could impact the administration of those benefits," he noted. "We recommend people exercise caution with where they're going and understanding which areas are under risk and which aren't."

VIDEO1:3501:35
Here's how coronavirus is impacting major global airlines

Seven Corners has not noted an uptick in either trip cancellation or medical claims since the coronavirus began making headlines, said Murchland, although there's been a 50% increase in call center inquiries around benefits.

"It seems that, at this stage, people are more interested in what their options are as opposed to executing those options," he observed. "It's kind of 'wait-and-see' still for a lot of people."

One thing travelers seeking emergency overseas medical coverage for a coming trip need not worry about is price gouging, said Julie Loffredi, spokesperson for InsureMyTrip.com. "Demand doesn't affect travel insurance pricing due to regulations," she said.

How travel medical coverage works

Overall sales of comprehensive travel insurance policies that include a "cancel for any reason" benefit have jumped 60% since Jan. 21, according to InsureMyTrip.com. Such plans have traditionally included emergency medical coverage abroad, where most U.S.-based health insurance programs, including Medicare, do not apply.

"Foreign health providers usually don't accept U.S. health insurance, and travelers who don't have travel insurance and end up in the hospital may be forced to pay thousands of dollars out of their pocket before the hospital will release them," said Marie Sturm, spokesperson for travel insurance firm Allianz, adding that medical evacuation back to the U.S. can cost $15,000 to $200,000.

"Travelers should never board a cruise ship or leave the country without emergency medical coverage," Sturm said, adding that many such policies serve as primary insurance and don't have any deductibles.

For its part, SquareMouth.com recommends at least $50,000 in medical coverage and $100,000 for evacuation for international trips.

If you're headed somewhere very remote or you're boarding a cruise ship, bump those coverage thresholds up to $100,000 and $250,000, respectively, according to Barto. (Extreme sports or adventure travelers can also find plans that will cover their specific activities at additional cost.)

We recommend people exercise caution with where they're going and understanding which areas are under risk and which aren't.
Jeremy Murchland
president of Seven Corners

In addition to the comprehensive plans that include emergency medical coverage, many travel insurance providers like Seven Corners offer medical-only plans that do not compensate policy holders for, say, trip cancellation, delays or lost luggage.

These plans tend to offer a similar or even expanded range of emergency medical benefits, but at a much lower cost than comprehensive policies.

A medical plan for a one-week, $5,000 trip for two travelers ages 55 to 60 could cost just $37 when booked via SquareMouth.com, said Barto. By contrast, plans with trip cancellation protection generally cost 4% to 10% of total trip cost, so adding that protection to the $37 medical policy would cost travelers an additional $171.92, for a total of $208.92.

"It's a big difference," said Murchland at Seven Corners. "Your comprehensive plans generally are going to be a function of your total trip cost, whereas the medical plans are more a function of your age and number of days you're traveling."

Both comprehensive and medical-only travel insurance plans will usually cover emergency medical and dental care, and medical evacuation back to the States if necessary. Many plan providers also offer — sometimes at additional cost — 24-hour assistance with medical referral, translation services and even prepayment to foreign medical providers, given enough advanced notice.

Fertnig

"We can tell you, 'Hey, you're in Athens. Go to this hospital,'" Murchland said. "And at that time, we'll try and do a guarantee of payment, so there's nothing you have to pay out of pocket.

"And if you're in China and you need to go to a facility where they only speak Mandarin, our assist team will help get somebody on the phone to work through the translation and help."

But forget about getting your annual physical in view of the Eiffel Tower. That's because neither type of travel plan is designed for routine doctor or dentist visits or regular treatments for pre-existing conditions while you're away. So "if you have to have a cavity, or a regular prescription, filled, that's not going to happen," said Murchland. "But dental accidents [and] sudden relief of pain are covered."

Having a pre-existing condition, meanwhile, does not normally preclude travelers from procuring travel medical insurance plans, Murchland noted, although there may be some restrictions. That's important for older travelers, many of whom are on Medicare, which does not cover treatment outside the U.S.

In fact, the majority of SquareMouth customers are age 55 and older and on Medicare, "which is where more of the drive for international medical coverage comes from," said Barto.