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Health insurance provides coverage for routine and emergency medical care, whether you’re at home or traveling around the country. But not all health insurance plans offer international coverage.
Even if your U.S.-based health plan covers medical treatment outside the country, you could still wind up paying for a big chunk of the medical bills.
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Do U.S. Health Insurance Companies Cover Treatment Outside the Country?
Some U.S.-based health insurance companies cover care when you travel internationally, but not all do, and the specific medical services covered vary by health plan and health insurance company. That’s why it’s important to ask your health insurance company what global benefits you have when you’re planning a trip abroad.
For example, Cigna and Kaiser Permanente health insurance plans both cover emergency and urgent care when you’re traveling outside the U.S.
Aetna health insurance plans only cover emergency care in border countries, such as Mexico.
Other major health insurance companies, such as UnitedHealthcare, do not provide any reimbursement for emergency medical services when you’re traveling internationally.
Does Medicare Pay for Treatment in Other Countries?
Medicare doesn’t cover you outside the U.S., with three narrow exceptions:
- You’re in the U.S. when you have a medical emergency and a foreign hospital is closer than a U.S. facility.
- You’re traveling without pauses in your itinerary through Canada on the most direct route between Alaska and another state, have a medical emergency and a Canadian hospital is closer than the nearest U.S. hospital that can treat you.
- You live in the U.S. but a foreign hospital is closer to your home than the nearest U.S. facility that can treat you.
Some Medicare Supplement insurance plans, known as Medigap insurance, reimburse for worldwide emergency care. These policies are only available for people with Original Medicare and aren’t open to Medicare Advantage members.
Medigap plans that help pay for foreign travel emergency health care include Plans C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, M and N. Medigap pays 80% of medically necessary emergency care outside of the U.S. after you reach a $250 deductible.
Medigap plans that cover international care have a $50,000 lifetime limit and only cover travel emergencies in other countries if they happen during the first 60 days of a trip.
What Do U.S. Health Plans Generally Cover Outside the U.S.?
U.S. plans that provide international coverage generally cover only emergency and urgent medical care. Some common issues that may be covered include:
- Broken bones
- Chest pains
- Loss of consciousness
- Severe pain
- Shortness of breath
Beware of Out-Of-Network Costs for International Medical Bills
If your health insurance plan covers international medical care, it doesn’t mean the health plan will pay for all your medical bills. International medical facilities are typically considered out of network, so you might have to pay a significant portion of the bill yourself before insurance starts paying.
Let’s say you break your leg and need X-rays and care at a foreign hospital. If you visited an in-network hospital back home, your plan might pick up 80% of the costs and you pay the other 20% after reaching your deductible. Out-of-network reimbursement is lower. Even though your health plan may cover international care, you would have to pay more of the costs, such as 50%. (Ask your health insurer exactly what your deductible and reimbursement rates would be if you’re planning a trip abroad.)
What’s Not Covered by U.S. Health Plans When You Travel Internationally?
Most insurance companies cover only issues that require immediate medical attention while you travel internationally.
Routine care—like physical exams and non-emergency medical appointments—and your regular prescription medicine usually aren’t covered under a U.S. health insurance plan when you travel in a foreign country.
Filing a Claim for Medical Care That Was Outside the U.S.
The claims process works differently when you receive emergency medical care while traveling outside the U.S. Contact your health insurance company before you go to the hospital (if possible) or when you’re there to ask about what documentation you’ll need for a claim and timelines for submitting claims, which can help ensure a smoother reimbursement process.
A representative from your insurance company may need to discuss your condition and proposed treatment plan with the doctor who is overseeing your care. For example, if you’re a Kaiser Permanente plan member, the insurance company must authorize post-stabilization care if you need continued treatment.
U.S.-based health insurance companies generally can’t directly pay medical providers in other countries, which means you will need to pay for your medical care upfront and with your own money. When you return home to the U.S., you can file a claim with your insurance company to get reimbursed.
To file a claim for international medical care, you’ll need to provide documentation to your insurance company. Some of the information you may need to submit includes:
- Medical bills. Your insurance company will ask to see your itemized medical bills with the date of treatment, what services you received and the cost of each service.
- Medical records. Your medical records should include notes on your admission and condition, as well as lab results and diagnoses.
- Proof of payment. You will need to provide proof of your payment for the medical treatment you received while traveling. This can include receipts from the medical facility.
- Proof of travel. You may be asked to provide proof of your travel, such as your airline confirmation, hotel invoice or passport stamps.
The amount you’ll be reimbursed for depends on the type of health plan you have and its out-of-pocket payment rules, like copays and health insurance deductibles.
Be Prepared to Pay Upfront for Emergency Care Abroad
If you need medical care in another country, you will probably need to pay upfront. This is the case in most countries, including Mexico and Canada.
Depending on your situation, emergency medical bills can be expensive. And once you return home and file the claim, you might wait a while to get reimbursed. For example, Kaiser Permanente states that claims after international travel are processed within 45 days.
Your health insurance plan may not pay for all the medical services you need while traveling abroad. For instance, Kaiser Permanente doesn’t always cover follow up outpatient care, like the removal of stitches or a cast, which you might need after an initial treatment.
Why Travel Medical Insurance Is a Smart Move
Instead of relying on your U.S. health insurance plan while traveling abroad, it’s often a good idea to purchase a separate travel medical insurance policy. If you become ill or are injured while visiting another country, travel medical insurance can compensate you up to the plan’s limit for:
- An ambulance ride
- Hospital and doctor bills
- Lab tests
- Other medical bills
It’s also wise to consider buying emergency medical evacuation insurance, which pays the cost to transport you to the nearest adequate facility that can treat you. The cost for airlift transportation for immediate medical care can be tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on your condition and location.
Medical evacuation insurance can also compensate you for the cost to return home on a commercial flight while you’re recovering, and for a medical escort and necessary medical equipment, which can also be expensive.
Where To Buy Travel Medical Insurance
You can purchase a standalone travel medical insurance plan from a travel insurance company, or you can buy it as part of a comprehensive travel insurance policy that also provides benefits for trip cancellation, trip delay, trip interruption, lost baggage, emergency medical evacuation and more.
The best travel insurance companies sell comprehensive policies that include travel medical insurance of at least $100,000 per person, but many provide $500,000 per person if you want more coverage. The most generous travel insurance plans provide $1 million in medical evacuation coverage per person.
Some health insurance companies also sell travel medical insurance plans. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield sells health plans with international benefits through GeoBlue, which cover emergency and some non-emergency services in foreign countries. You don’t need to be a BCBS member to purchase a GeoBlue plan. GeoBlue has a provider network outside the U.S. and has health plans for single trips, multiple trips and long-term stays abroad.
UnitedHealthcare sells travel medical insurance as part of its SafeTrip travel insurance plans. You can select from International Travel Medical Plus or International Travel Medical, depending on your coverage needs. You can get a quote online to see how much a SafeTrip plan will cost based on your destination and the number of travelers in your party.
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