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Tourists, beware: Foreign visitors' travel health insurance might exclude pandemics

Carmen Heredia Rodriguez, Kaiser Health News, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

It was evident that the fever, nausea and loss of appetite Vlastimil Gajdoš felt on his wedding day was not a mere case of cold feet.

Gajdoš, 65, fell ill in Honolulu in March after arriving with his bride-to-be from the Czech Republic. He and Sylva Di Sandro, 58, intended to marry and honeymoon on the island.

While they did tie the knot, they also engaged in serious battle with the novel coronavirus. He was in the hospital for two weeks, some of it in intensive care, on a ventilator. Like many visitors to the U.S., who are aware that health care prices here can be higher than back home, Gajdoš purchased a travel insurance plan that covered up to $300,000 in medical expenses.

But after Gajdoš was diagnosed with COVID-19 and his wife called to check whether his care would be covered, the newlyweds discovered a catch: The insurer said it wouldn't pay upfront. And it would consider reimbursing the couple only after Gajdoš was released from the hospital.

"I was really afraid that they (doctors) would not give him any assistance if they were not sure that this would not be covered," said Di Sandro, who had only a mild case and was not hospitalized.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the travel industry -- including insurance companies. Even beyond the current crisis, travelers should pay careful attention to the fine print on coverage policies.

 

Many plans offer health care coverage in case a person needs medical attention during a trip. But policies vary tremendously by company -- containing limits on payouts, copayments and circumstances, such as whether they cover an evacuation.

Most travel insurance plans contain exclusions for known or "foreseen events," said Kasara Barto, a spokesperson for Squaremouth, an online service that allows travelers to compare insurance options.

In some situations, a traveler can anticipate the risk of visiting a destination. A regular insurance policy might not cover a mountaineering accident while climbing Everest, for example.

Also common is the pandemic exclusion, in which the insurer will not pay for a traveler's medical expenses if they are related to an outbreak such as the coronavirus.

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