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Dodging the health insurance minefield

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), 1992

Don’t leave home without it. No, not American Express Travellers cheques but health insurance. With changes to OHIP coverage for out-of-country hospital visits and rising U.S. health care costs, any snowbird who pays a visit to an American hospital will face hefty bills. To make things even more complicated, the recent growth in competing travel health insurance schemes in Canada has created a minefield of policies that must be entered with caution.

Luckily for snowbirds, the newly formed Canadian Snowbird Association is trying to make these changes a little easier to cope with. Formed in March, the Association boasts 8,500 members and is looking for more. They hope to advocate for the rights of snowbirds and collect information on private insurance plans to help seniors make the right decisions.

Communications co-ordinator Don Slinger says he will have a list of appropriate private health insurance policies ready by the end of August. The Association has been meeting with private insurance companies to find out the best plans.

“Snowbirds shouldn’t be in a hurry to get insurance,” says Slinger. “Many insurance companies are using the situation to exploit panic-stricken seniors.”

Slinger warns snowbirds never to go down to the U.S. without extra insurance on top of OHIP. “OHIP is just a drop in the bucket of the cost of a stay in an American hospital. Unfortunately, a lot of people still take the chance.

“I had been going south for 12 years without a problem until a ruptured appendix. It ended up costing me $12,000 for an eight-day hospital stay.

“When we met with the government they weren’t sympathetic. They said snowbirds are a wealthy group and can afford the payments. However, a lot of people are on fixed incomes and won’t be able to afford to go south with these higher costs.”

Slinger advises against buying coverage after arriving in the U.S. The Snowbirds Association emphasizes that it believes in medicare and will fight hard to ensure it provides full coverage for seniors.

Gerry Byrne, a vice-president at non-profit insurers Blue Cross warns against buying U.S. insurance because companies require a medical exam and skim off the healthiest people for full coverage. But Blue Cross itself will introduce rates based on age and medical conditions in September.

American health insurance plans have long been criticized for hurting older seniors and those with ongoing medical conditions. In these schemes, the healthiest seniors pay low premiums while seniors with chronic conditions are saddled with higher rates or, worse still, refused coverage. Unlike medicare – which covers everybody regardless of their health – private insurers are tempted to reduce their costs by covering only the lowest risk group – favouring the young and healthy.

Unfortunately, a quick survey of travel health insurance plans shows this trend to be in full bloom in Canada. Credit card companies, which have recently begun to offer travel health insurance, are revising their conditions. The Royal Bank’s Visa Gold card will drop coverage for seniors over 65 starting Nov. 1. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Scotia Bank Visa cards still offer coverage to seniors – but both are revising this. American Express’s annual plan has no age limit, while its per trip plan has a higher rate for seniors between 60 and 74 and doesn’t cover anybody 75 and over.

Suzanne Deul, who helps market the Toronto Dominion Bank Visa card, blames the insurance companies for changes. “Because of high costs, the pressure is on to change policies. We are trying to be more equitable but the insurers want age restrictions. In some ways it could be justified to charge more for people who attract higher costs.”

With so many health insurance companies losing money covering seniors, the challenge for private insurers is to make covering seniors profitable without excluding people. To this end, Robin Ingle, president of John Ingle Travel Insurance, has instituted changes to increase the money available for more expensive hospital stays.

“About one-third of our policy holders are over 65, and we have a lot of snowbirds. This group is only getting bigger, so instead of raising rates and placing restrictions, we increased the number of policy holders to include a broad range of people young and old.”

Ingle blames rising U.S. health care costs for making it unprofitable to provide health insurance to seniors. His company has set up an office in Florida to prevent hospitals overcharging Canadians and has negotiated deals with some hospitals for lower rates. John Ingle Travel Insurance offers special rates for seniors’ groups and gives a 10 per cent discount to members of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

Three years ago there were 10 companies in Canada offering travel insurance; now there are over 50.

According to Ingle, many of the neophyte companies are losing money. “I predict the whole industry will shrink because they have had high losses and can’t take care of their clients. I would advise seniors to watch out for companies that might not be around a year from now.”

Ingle says seniors should also beware of glitzy marketing and flashy pamphlets and read the fine print to make sure the policy covers their age and medical condition.

Irene Klatt of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, which represents all private for-profit insurers, advises seniors to look for insurance plans that have toll-free numbers that can be called 24 hours a day in an emergency. This will cut down on hassles with American hospitals which will not admit patients without insurance. The Association also has its own toll-free advice line staffed by seniors from the insurance industry. Klatt warns that her association represents all for-profit insurers and can’t favor one scheme over another but does have a pamphlet that offers advice on choosing insurance.

Insurance, of course, isn’t enough to ensure a healthy stay. Irene Turple of the Canadian Association on Gerontology has some helpful health tips: “Discuss your trip with the family doctor. Make a list of all your medications; and remember – the names of the drugs can be different in the States. If you have an echocardiogram handy, bring it along. Make a health diary listing your medical history. Remember that physicians aren’t all-knowing and if you can provide as much medical information as possible it can make a difference.”

Turple also stresses getting immunized for the flu before going to the States and remembering to cover up from the sun.

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