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Considerations When Choosing Health Insurance Coverage Abroad

Whether an expatriate is living abroad for a week or three years, it’s critical that he or she has the right type of health insurance coverage.

“It’s important to shop around to see what makes sense and what doesn’t,” says Derek Capo, CEO of relocation service company Next Step China, headquartered in Beijing. “Some policies don’t allow preexisting medical conditions,” he says, “and others don’t carry over when you go back home.”

Here are a few considerations when choosing medical insurance overseas.

Private medical insurance is key for adequate coverage while traveling abroad.

Coverage Necessities

According to Capo, it’s absolutely crucial that expats have full health insurance coverage for certain products and services in a foreign country. Among them are the following: doctor visits and special entities, which enables an individual to see a specialist if necessary; doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals and drugs; and physiotherapy and rehabilitation in case an individual is in an accident.

Individuals should also consider obtaining full coverage for medical evacuation and repatriation as part of their medical insurance. “The way that works is if you get sick and they can’t cure you, you can go back home,” Capo says. “Or, if there’s a medical outbreak, you can go back home.”

Fill in Coverage Gaps

Not everyone needs to purchase full coverage. “The amount of coverage an individual needs depends on the level of health care adequacy in the new country,” says Suzanne Garber, chief networking officer of International SOS, an international health care medical assistance and security services company headquartered in Singapore with locations across the globe.  

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Garber recommends individuals research the country’s medical capabilities, as well as analyze the risk for themselves and their families before picking a health insurance policy — even if they’re going to a country with a free, national health plan. “Some great sources of information pre-trip are for state department advisories, assistance companies like International SOS and primary medical insurance companies,” Garber says.

Coverage may already be provided by an employer or the country visited, but private medical insurance is key for adequate coverage while living overseas. For instance, individuals who don’t purchase additional coverage may be covered financially by the national plan, but could wait months to see a specialist. In countries that don’t offer a national plan, individuals should consider opting for full private health insurance coverage.

Questions to Ask

Before choosing a health insurance policy, Capo and Garber recommend individuals ask themselves the following questions to ensure they’ve covered all their bases:

1. Do I need an assistance company?  Some countries will make individuals pay in cash before being treated. “Depending upon how full the hospital is and what your condition is, the hospital may demand cash before admitting you,” Garber says. “This is prevalent in Latin America. These private hospitals are able to do this because they are of a much higher quality than the public hospitals available and they have the demand from other cash-paying clients to do so.” In this case, an assistance company, which can be utilized in conjunction with the services of a medical insurance company, would help individuals prepare for and manage the health and security risks they face as a result of living abroad. “An assistance company can help you with these nuances so you don’t have to outlay upwards of $20,000 in cash,” Garber says.

For example, a person may call an assistance company to help find a doctor in Mexico, and the insurance company will cover the cost of the visit. However, if the person’s condition worsens to the point of needing a medical evacuation, the assistance company would conduct the evacuation, while the billing would be sent to the insurance company. “Insurance companies do not do the actual activity,” Garber says. “That belongs to the assistance company.”

To alleviate some of the stress involved in making international payments for medical services abroad, individuals can use a trusted online foreign exchange service to make quick and simple bank-to-bank money transfers. For example, Western Union Online Foreign Exchange is able to convert money in 135 currencies, and with a wire money transfer, funds can arrive within a minimum of two days.

2. Where will I travel?  Individuals should tell their provider where they plan on traveling to ensure that a specific country is covered within a regional policy. “Make sure when you get a policy, you’re protected if you travel,” Capo says.

Likewise, it’s important to ensure that an individual’s foreign exchange provider can convert funds quickly in the case of an emergency. Western Union Online FX can help individuals make international payments or money transfers required for medical insurance and medical coverage in 135 currencies.

3. What documents do I need to file a claim?  Capo says it is extremely important to understand the claim filing process, and know what documents must be filed before choosing an insurance plan. This will determine how long an individual will need to wait before either being reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs or having bills paid directly.

According to Capo, necessary documents typically include: receipts; proof of visit; and listing in detail the condition, doctor and hospital name; location; a visa to prove traveling status; and a valid passport. “Some policies have networks where it’s all digital, and some require you to mail in the paper documents,” he says.

While there are many ways to prepare for living abroad, it’s always wise to put medical insurance at the top of one’s priority list. “Policies are boring and long,” Capo says, “but it’s your life.” 

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