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Article of the month:

Why Do Expats Need International Health Insurance?

Nov 03, 2003
By Carlos Perez

Published on ExpatExchange.com

You are sure that it will never happen to you or anyone in your family and if it does you will be able to cross that bridge when you get there. Besides, there is the state run health care system to fall back on, right?

There are many popular misconceptions regarding health care abroad. Most people prefer not to think about unexpected catastrophes or illnesses - that always happens to some other unlucky soul. But, what if you or a family member DID have that accident or come down with that serious illness? Where will you go? How will you pay for medical care that you can rely on? Do you really want to spend days or weeks in a crowded public hospital ward where most of the staff can't speak English?

Public hospitals in some areas ARE good and they will always be inexpensive. Sometimes the quality of medical and surgical care is reliable due to proper training by the medical staff, but the other ancillary services may not be as good. Usually they have large public wards with no privacy, long waiting lists for non-emergency treatment and very few English speakers among their staff. If you want to have a private or semi-private room, or choose your own surgeon, or not wait several months for a routine operation, you must have a private health insurance plan.

It is impossible to predict the sum total of your medical bills if you or a family member are the victim of an accident or serious illness. If all of you are healthy and fortunate, your annual costs could be very low or even nil. But, if any of you do require medical care, your bills could be enormous. If you do not have proper insurance cover then will be forced to endure the public health system (assuming that your current country of residence allows you access) or you will have to deplete some or all of your savings to cover the costs. It is commonly known that in the U.S., the #1 reason for personal bankruptcies is the debt accumulated by the unfortunate victims of an accident or serious illness. The same can happen abroad.

What if you and your family are covered by your employer's plan? That means that everything is taken care of and you can stop worrying about it right? Guess again - unless you find out exactly what is, and more importantly - what isn't covered, you could have a very unpleasant surprise when you need your employer's plan to save the day.

Here are some questions you should ask your HR manager:

  1. What is the maximum coverage amount for you and for each family member? Are there maximum coverage amounts for specific conditions such as maternity, transplants, etc.?
  2. Does it offer full coverage for hospitalization? Is there a coverage limit on basic expenses such as your hospital room, etc?
  3. Does it provide full coverage to all of your family members as well?
  4. Does it cover you only in your current country of residence, or can you return to the US for treatment if you choose? Be careful with this one - most local plans do not cover treatment in the US, or severely restrict cover and benefit amounts if they do.
  5. Does it provide emergency medical evacuation services, otherwise know as "air ambulance"? This can be the difference between life and death in some cases. If they do not cover it, you will have to pay (typically, this runs from $10,000 -$15,000 per incident).
So, what do you do? If you do not have a private international medical plan, or your employer's plan does not pass muster, you have many options available. Among them:
  1. Full major medical plans with coverage up to $ 5 million lifetime per family member.
  2. Full coverage for maternity, transplants, air ambulance and many additional options such as dental cover and term life insurance.
  3. Freedom of choice outside the US to visit any doctor, clinic or hospital you choose (inside the US provider networks do exist).
  4. Full coverage in the US as well as abroad.
  5. Guaranteed approval options for applicants with significant pre-existing conditions.
  6. Surprisingly affordable rates (a fraction of what "US only" plans charge)