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the hidden costs of ‘free’ travel insurance policies (from Ha’aretz)

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Haaretz put out a great article about the buying insurance when going abroad:

The hidden costs of ‘free’ travel insurance policies

Nobody wants to think about ending their vacation in the hospital. That may be why, unlike car, health and life insurance, travel insurance is usually a last-minute affair.

By Rina Rozenberg

Nobody wants to think about ending their vacation in the hospital. That may be why, unlike car, health and life insurance, which most people investigate thoroughly before choosing a provider – consulting with friends and experts, comparing prices, even (shudder) reading the policies – travel insurance is usually a last-minute affair, arranged in between packing your bags and checking the weather forecast at your destination.

Another reason people take travel insurance so casually could be that it’s relatively inexpensive. Somebody offers you a policy with your ticket, or you get it through your credit card. Roughly half the travel insurance policies in Israel are issued by the country’s health maintenance organizations, the kupot holim, according to estimates by industry insiders. Most of the rest are from credit card companies and travel agencies, while actual insurance agents are believed to control only 10% of the market.

The price differences among these sources are negligible. But when it comes to coverage the differences are significant, making it important for travelers to do a little homework before setting out for the airport.

1 Don’t make do with the free coverage provided by your credit card issuer. It may not cover the cost of hospitalization.

The credit card companies do not charge customers for basic travel coverage, and in some cases it is automatic; the customer doesn’t even need to contact the company for it to kick in. The problem is that free policies tend to have more constraints and limitations than policies you pay for. Any serious injury or illness requiring surgery or protracted hospitalization will probably leave the policy holder owing huge sums to the overseas hospital.

That’s because they do not provide for full reimbursement. Free policies issued by the credit card companies set a cap on daily hospitalization and other costs, while policies that cost money generally cover more.

For instance, the Visa Cal credit card company will pay up to $450,000 for hospitalization and other medical costs, but has a $2,000-per-day limit on hospitalization reimbursement. If your medical care costs more per day (or in total ), you are responsible for the balance. Isracard has the same daily cap. Leumi Card’s is lower, at $1,350 a day. Sources in the insurance sector say hospitals in Europe and the United States charge at least $3,000 a day.

The credit card companies do offer policy upgrades – for a fee, of course.

2 Do you have high blood pressure, heart disease or some other preexisting condition, chronic or otherwise? You may need special coverage as part of your travel insurance.

A preexisting medical condition is a “medical condition for which the policy holder received drug treatment, medical care or hospitalization in the six months before the trip,” says Michal Weiner, head of the medical-insurance and personal accident department at AIG Israel. If you travel abroad without coverage for a preexisting medical condition that causes you trouble you will wind up footing the entire cost of care yourself, she warns.

The credit card companies’ basic, free policies do not provide this coverage; you can get it, but you have to pay.

Anyone with a chronic condition such as asthma, slipped disc, heart disease or diabetes – even if the condition is stable – should think about this carefully.

Of the kupot holim, Leumit and Maccabi each offers a one-size-fits-all travel insurance policy that cover preexisting conditions. Clalit and Meuhedet both offer riders, supplemental insurance, at a reasonable per diem rate.

3 Even if you bought an insurance policy through your health care fund, it isn’t the actual insurer, and the actual insurance company won’t be aware of your medical condition. You should advise your insurance agent accordingly.

A few months ago the insurance commissioner at the Finance Ministry, Oded Sarig, issued a draft clarification on medical insurance policies sold by insurance agents, which for the purposes of this article include the health-care funds.

One of the reasons for his paper was that, as Sarig noted, a health-care fund member could mistakenly think that when they purchase travel insurance from their health care provider, the policy is tailored to their medical profile. That’s a big mistake.

“The policy holder figures the health-care provider knows them thoroughly and checked their medical records before offering the policy, but it isn’t so,” says Yaron Baron, sales manager at the DavidShield insurance agency. “The kupat holim is serving as a marketing channel. Clal Insurance or Harel is providing the actual insurance.”

4 Usually a $500,000 policy is adequate. All travel insurance policies have a coverage ceiling of between $500,000 to $1 million; the truth is that the number usually doesn’t matter much.

“In most cases the coverage offered by medical and hospitalization policies is high enough,” says Baron, even though his agency offers PassportCard, with coverage of up to a million dollars. He thinks the number is mainly a marketing gimmick: He says he cannot recall a single case of a traveler needing more than $500,000, the lowest ceiling of any Israel travel insurance policy.

That does not mean that such cases do not exist, of course. Gabi Nakibly, VP marketing and sales at Clal Health Insurance, recalls the case of a customer who collapsed while in the United States and ended up in the hospital for 10 weeks. The bills came to $2 million. “Since we have working relations with hospitals, we managed to get the bill reduced,” Nakibly says, adding, “But that was an extreme case.”

5 Tailor your policy to your trip. If you’re going to spend your vacation mountain-biking on single-track trails skirting deep gorges, white-water rafting or doing some other extreme sport, do mention it to your insurance agent so you can purchase appropriate coverage. If you’re taking along expensive equipment mention that too, and find out how to get it insured as well.

Note that standard baggage insurance also has a cap, usually $1,000 per piece but sometimes as much as $3,000.

If you’re taking expensive items, such as a laptop, gold jewelry or a smartphone, you’ll need extended coverage.

6 Make sure your travel insurance picks up the cost of flying you back to Israel for medical care, if necessary. It will raise your premium for your entire trip by about $15 at Meuhedet, for instance.

7 No matter what insurance policy you buy, there will be co-payments: You will pay part of the bill. How much depends on the policy and the issuer.

And one other thing. Make sure to hold onto all your receipts; without them your insurer won’t reimburse a single cent.

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