Sometimes, when a person receives a medical diagnosis, they’re compelled to book that trip they’ve been putting off forever. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, it is until you look at the particulars. Even if your illness is not yet affecting you – as in it’s the early stages of a non-aggressive cancer – or your treatment will spread out over many months, it’s a safe bet that you might need medical attention during your trip.
It’s important to remember that the reason we buy insurance – any insurance – is to avoid expensive losses due to unexpected events. Under the terms and conditions of your policy, the travel insurance company agrees to offset those financial losses if the event you’re insured against actually happens.
If you need to make a claim for treatment while on your trip, that treatment will almost certainly be classified as the result of a pre-existing medical condition because it’s already happened.
Most travelers want two things with their travel insurance plan if they’re traveling with a medical diagnosis: trip cancellation coverage and coverage for emergency medical expenses.
Travelers want to be able to get their money back if they have to cancel their trip prior to leaving. Under normal circumstances, i.e, without the illness involved, this coverage will reimburse a traveler up to 100% of their pre-paid and non-refundable trip expenses when an unforeseen event causes a cancellation. When you’re ill, however, the standard exclusion for pre-existing conditions affects whether you can make a successful claim – even if you’re not cancelling due to your illness.
Travelers also want to have the costs for medical treatment covered if they have to seek medical care while traveling. Under normal circumstances, i.e, without the illness involved, this coverage pays either the medical facility directly or reimburses the traveler later for the cost of medical treatment for any illness or injury encountered while on a covered trip. When you’re ill, however, the standard exclusion for pre-existing conditions affects whether you can make a successful claim – even if you’re not seeking medical care due to your illness.
Whether or not you should buy travel insurance for a trip depends on a number of factors, including where you’re going and your existing medical coverage.
Buying travel insurance when you’re sick or have been sick is tricky because even if you buy a plan with coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, there are rules that apply. And it’s up to the traveler to read their policy carefully and understand the terms and conditions because the travel insurance provider will not do a pre-screening ahead of time to certify you’re covered.
Even if you and your doctor agree that you’re well enough to take this trip, the travel insurance provider may not agree. You must be medically stable at the time you booked your travel. The term medically stable means that you’ve had no new medical conditions or prescription changes during the look-back period.
The amount of time in the look-back period is different from plan to plan, but it’s typically between 60 and 180 days. Any medical condition that existed during the look-back period is automatically considered a pre-existing condition if you had symptoms and/or were treated or your medication was changed. For many travelers, this means that they won’t be able to get adequate coverage for their trips if they’ve received a medical diagnosis – or even visited the doctor for a condition.
Consider this example: My father had a sore throat and visited the doctor. No infection was found, so tylenol and rest were prescribed. In the meantime, he booked a trip for himself and my mother and they covered it with travel insurance in case they had to cancel for some reason. Later, his throat was still bothering him and he revisited the doctor. Several tests later, they discovered throat cancer and the insurance company is refusing to reimburse their trip due to a pre-existing condition!
Unfortunately, in this situation the travelers are out of luck if they want to cancel their trip because the prior visit to the doctor was the indicator of a pre-existing condition they didn’t even know existed.
On the other hand, if you’ve recovered from your diagnosis and it’s been an adequate amount of time since you were sick, you can get coverage. It just depends on the timing.
The pre-existing condition limitations do not apply to the medical evacuation and repatriation coverage. This means your claims cannot be denied due to pre-existing medical conditions if you need a medical evacuation or die on your trip and want your body transported home for burial.
Here’s a scenario to consider: Our mother was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, but she had time according to the doctors. She booked an Alaskan cruise with her sister – something she’d always wanted to do. Unfortunately, she was in hospice and on a morphine drip when the cruise departed. It turns out we didn’t have as much time as we thought.
In this particular story, the traveler didn’t purchase travel insurance as she knew her cancellation wouldn’t be covered under the pre-ex rules; however, the cruise line refunded her family the money out of respect for her death.
Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.