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Proper travel insurance coverage crucial

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AS the season evolves, some travellers are making ready for European journeys, while others are planning trips to the Orient, South America and beyond.

But, even as they complete these plans, the nature of reader inquiries has shifted to a subject of a more serious nature.

Since the dramatic expose on travel insurance by CBC Marketplace in a recent TV documentary that uncovered how travel insurance companies use the fine print in their application documents to disallow coverage after the fact, many are concerned about how they may be affected.

It was equally disturbing to see how the agents who sell these products can sometimes mislead clients by glossing over important details which the insurance providers will not pass by.

In emails and comments, readers expressed vulnerability, and as some asked: "How are we, as consumers, supposed to know if we are really covered after we have forked over the cash for the security we should be able to take for granted?" Or, "We are not lawyers, so how can we be expected to interpret some of the mumble-jumble hidden in the application's pages?"

These are good questions. But let me say at the outset that no one should travel without proper travel insurance coverage. I can underscore that insurance companies pay out millions of dollars to cover hospital and other medical expenses for Canadians who suffer mishaps or health-related problems in foreign countries.

This positive side of the industry became personal just two weeks ago when an employee of ours had to have a gall bladder operation in Mexico. The insurance company quickly authorized the procedure, paid for both the hospital and out-of-hospital recovery time at a resort hotel, and later flew her and her daughter back to Canada at the company's expense.

Without having the appropriate coverage, this family would have encountered a considerable financial setback.

However, what the CBC documentary unearthed, from a consumer perspective at least, was the darker side of the travel insurance industry.

In a discussion with a physician over the last week, I was surprised to learn that when you sign your insurance application, you are giving the insurance company the authority to capture any and all information from your doctors that they have about you for a period of at least two years.

And what was even more illuminating from that discussion is that the information they seek is not just about treatments prescribed and tests taken. It can include requests for all the notes your doctor may have made during your time in his or her office, even if it doesn't necessarily relate to care at the time of your visit. Even somewhat casual concerns the physician makes note of for possible later follow-up are provided to the insurer.

So where does that leave those who are applying for, and expecting, complete coverage during time away from home?

What this clearly means is that you, the traveller, bear the complete responsibility for filling out the forms in a comprehensive and clear fashion. Regardless of how much you may trust your travel agent, or how slow you may think you will be in understanding and responding to the questions, you and you alone need to fulfil that task.

If you are unclear about how previous medications or conditions relate to some of the questions, consult with your own doctor for clarification. And be sure he or she understands the importance of why you are asking.

The imperative of doing this cannot be overstated. As a recent article pointed out, even your doctor does not necessarily tell you everything during checkup or followup visits.

The CBC documentary (http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/2012/trippedup/) clearly illustrated that, on some levels, the insurance companies are not the wonderful caring friends the insurance agent portrayed them to be in selling you their products.

Many of the questions that are included in the application forms for travel insurance are couched in legal and medical terms that no lay person should be expected to understand. But, fair or not, they are there, and for your own protection you need to work through them.

In my opinion, more is better when answering their questions. If you have a chronic condition you think might disqualify you, list it up front. If some past ailment continues to haunt you today, state it at the outset.

No one wants to be denied proper coverage for travel you are enthusiastic about experiencing. But insurance coverage is not like a trip to the casino where a bit of a gamble can occasionally pay off.

The insurance industry employs hundreds of investigative professionals who can and will uncover misleading statements when they may be faced with paying out thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to foreign health providers.

Travel insurance is important, and in most cases the company you chose to deal with is genuinely happy to pay out these funds on behalf of clients like you who find themselves in situations to that of my own employee.

At the same time, they are in the business to gain the greatest return they can for their investors. And sadly, some of those returns are gained via the small print in policies most of us don't understand.

Forward your travel questions to askjourneys@journeystravel.com. Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 D2

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