Courtenay Welton never thought he’d need medical evacuation coverage. But when his wife, Ellen, saw an ad for a medical evacuation membership in a car club magazine five years ago, he wondered: What if something happens while we’re traveling?
“She thought it was a good idea and we signed up,” says Welton, a retired civil servant.
The Weltons paid $425 a year for a family membership in Medjet, an air medical transport, and travel security program.
Last March, while they were vacationing in Vero Beach, Fla., something did happen. Ellen, who was suffering from ovarian cancer, fell at the pool, injuring herself. Because she needed extra oxygen, she required medical evacuation to get home to her doctors in Richmond, Va.
Welton called Medjet. The company contacted her physician at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, Fla., and swiftly dispatched a plane to pick up the couple.
“There were two nurses on board,” he recalls. “The flight operation was amazingly efficient.”
Ellen got home to her doctors faster than if she’d booked a commercial flight home.
“From my first call to them to our arrival in Richmond, there was no question about the emergency once Medjet talked to the doctors,” Welton adds.
Medjet is just one of several medical evacuation options for travelers. Others include travel insurance or one of the new specialty travel insurance policies. But what do you need to know about medical evacuations before you travel?
What is medical evacuation coverage?
A medical evacuation plan — or medevac plan — is coverage that handles medical repatriation.
“Many travel insurance policies cover emergency transportation costs to the nearest adequate medical facility for initial treatment,” explains James Walloga, the executive vice president for Chubb North America Accident & Health. “Once a traveler’s condition has been stabilized, these policies also offer coverage so that the travel assistance provider can arrange the appropriate transportation to a patient’s home, including such measures as a medical escort, medical equipment, and transportation method.”
Here are the essentials:
- If you don’t have medical evacuation coverage, you’ll have to pay for any medical evacuation out of pocket.
- Garden variety of travel insurance can cover evacuations, but only under certain conditions.
- You can buy separate medical evacuation insurance or a medical evacuation membership to offset your costs.
Why medical evacuation coverage is important
Welton was lucky. An unknown number of travelers end up away from home either with insufficient coverage for medical evacuations — or none at all.
“Medical emergencies while traveling are both stressful and can result in lower levels of medical care compared to home,” says Tom Bochnowski, a vice president at Redpoint Resolutions, which specializes in evacuation insurance for adventure travelers. “That’s why understanding your travel insurance program’s medical evacuation services is so important.”
You don’t want to have to figure out a medical evacuation after an emergency, according to William Spangler, global medical director with AIG Travel, a travel insurance company. “Travelers who are not prepared with travel medical evacuation coverage may have to fend for themselves in a remote or unfamiliar locale without the help of trained professionals,” he adds.
The shocking cost of a medical evacuation — if you don’t have coverage
Had the Weltons needed to pay for an evacuation out of pocket, it could have cost as much as $125,000, depending on their location. That’s according to Anna Ransom, a registered nurse, owner of Destination Yours Travel, a travel agency.
“The average cost of evacuation runs about $45,000,” she says.
Most of the stories you read about medical evacuations are like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster. They feature injured mountaineers being evacuated from K2 in a helicopter. Those types of evacuations are considerably more expensive.
“Repatriation of a critically ill or injured person may reach or exceed $1 million depending on their condition, the accessibility of their location and the distance back to their home country,” says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO, and founder of VisitorsCoverage, a travel insurance site.
By contrast, a quality medical evacuation-only insurance policy would start at around $100 per trip, according to Redpoint’s Bochnowski. “If you were looking for medical evacuation within a broader travel insurance program, the cost would vary based on your age and the trip cost you are looking to insure,” he adds.
What does travel insurance cover?
A regular travel insurance policy may cover an emergency medical evacuation. That may include an airlift or a medically equipped flights back home. It might also transport you to a hospital of your choice for treatment.
Then again, it might not.
“Many inexpensive or no-additional-cost plans may provide emergency assistance and a hotline to help arrange for medical services, but not necessarily include the benefit to actually pay for an emergency evacuation,” says Beth Godlin, president of Aon Affinity Travel Practice, a travel insurance company.
But there are significant limitations to travel insurance that does cover you. That can include limits on destinations and coverage. In other words, even if you had medical evacuation as part of your policy, you might still have to pay a lot of money to get home.
“Even if you have medical evacuation insurance, understand that it is subject to all the same rules as the rest of your insurance coverage,” says John Gobbels, Medjet’s chief operating officer. “If your policy doesn’t cover injury sustained on a moped, or doesn’t cover adventure travel, or a pre-existing condition that was either excluded or not claimed, they’re not going to cover an evacuation either.”
What to look for when you’re looking for medical evacuation coverage
I write about travel insurance on an almost daily basis on behalf of my consumer advocacy organization. I’ve spoken with travelers who say they had to take out a second mortgage to pay for their medical evacuations. Understanding the limits of travel insurance is critical.
Among the issues:
Exclusions for your destination. Some policies exclude specific geographic locations. “Travel insurance can be a waste of money if the coverage does not recognize the destination location,” says Ben Galbreath, a producer with Wallace & Turner Insurance in Springfield, Ohio.
Limits on benefits. Review the maximum amount the company is willing to payout. Each has its own maximum amounts. The limits vary from $50,000 up to $1,000,000. Remember, the higher the coverage you select, the higher the premium.
Limits on medical care. Look into the nearest medical facility where you are traveling that is approved by the coverage. Sometimes travel insurance only covers medical evacuation to the nearest approved medical center, but not all the way home.
Pre-existing conditions. This one’s a little tricky. Travel insurance companies have “lookback” periods ranging from 60 to 180 days. If you have a medical condition for which you were diagnosed or received treatment during the lookback period — or if your condition changed — it might be excluded from coverage.
Pre-authorizations. You might need prior approval from your insurance company for medical procedures, including an evacuation. Check the fine print on your policy to make sure you don’t need pre-authorization for something major, like medical evacuation. Normally, you should expect to get pre-authorization for emergency reunion benefits, repatriation, and minor surgery.
Pro tip: Watch the price.
“One of the most common mistakes is always shopping for the cheapest policy and expecting Cadillac coverage,” says Christina Tunnah, the Americas manager for World Nomads, a travel insurance company. “Or conversely, thinking that the most expensive policy is the best, when in fact you may be buying coverage you don’t need.”
Specialty travel insurance — or medical transport membership program?
Some travel insurance companies offer special coverage that addresses many of the shortcomings of regular travel insurance. For example, Ripcord Rescue Travel Insurance offers a policy that covers evacuation and rescue from your point of injury or illness to your hospital of choice. It also includes primary medical expense coverage, trip cancellation coverage and baggage loss, including sporting goods. (ABC News calls it “travel insurance on steroids.”) There are many more, and more diverse, travel insurance products, as I recently discovered.
“If you or a loved one needs an emergency medical evacuation, you’ll want to work with an experienced company,” adds Justin Tysdal, CEO of Seven Corners, a travel insurance company. “Evacuations are involved, complicated, and expensive. Make sure the company you’re purchasing from has strong expertise in this type of situation.”
How about Medjet, the medical transport service used by Welton? It covers all medical transportation in the U.S. and internationally, travel medical emergency referrals, ground ambulance transfers and hospital transfers under 150 miles, and emergency cash advances. But as Medjet’s Gobbels notes, you should have both.
“A medical transport membership isn’t travel insurance,” he says. “We do not replace travel insurance. Travel insurance is essential. We complement it.”
That’s how Welton sees it, too. “We had travel insurance that we bought with the airline reservation,” he recalls. “It covered the cancellation of the flight home.”
Medjet took care of the rest.
Welton says he would recommend a combination of insurance and a medical transport membership.
“A lot of folks are taking more adventurous overseas vacations,” he adds. “Definitely do this.”
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.