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Medical Insurance: Are You Covered?

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A trip to Europe, hitchhiking in the rain, and no medical insurance. Foolish, I know, but I was only 20. Spending a week in a hospital in southern France, fortunate that they cared for me despite my lack of insurance. When I arrived back home, I paid the hospital bill, which I'm certain was only a portion of the actual cost. I was lucky. Most stories don't end this way.

Moving overseas is a little trickier than just traveling through a country so you need to do a little homework and ask a lot of questions.

If your move is due to a job transfer or are starting employment with a new company, ask your employer if they offer health benefits. If they do, and that is part of your compensation package, find out if there is a wait period before the benefits kick in. It's not unusual to have to wait three months before you're considered a resident or as a probation period. If this is the case, you will need to buy insurance so you're protected while you wait for your permanent health benefits.

Before you move, find out if your current medical insurance will cover you while abroad. Some companies will only insure you in your resident country, while others provide limited international coverage, such as "customary and reasonable" hospital costs. If you need to be evacuated back home, most insurers will not cover these costs. Make sure you read the find print and ask your insurance agent which health benefits they cover. You'll need insurance to cover you from routine doctor visits to emergency care. If you're under a family plan, ask what benefits are provided to your family members, too.

Contact your new country's embassy or consulate and ask what kind of health coverage is provide to local residents. Then find out if these benefits will be extended to you and your family, and if so, how long you need to be in the country before they offer you coverage. Most countries have a residency policy and while some have a socialized medical system, others are private, and some have a combination of both. Navigating through the country's health system will be trying, but it's important that you make sure you and your family will be fully protected.

If you purchase medical insurance before you go, make sure you carry your insurance policy identity card at all times. This card is your proof that you are insured.

If you need assistance, you can contact your local embassy or consulate. Most embassies or consulates will provide names of doctors and hospitals that can assist you if you or a family member becomes ill. Your embassy or consulate can also assist you if you need to transfer funds or need to arrange an evacuation. It's a good idea to make note of the phone number of the embassy or consulate closest to you in your new country. Keep this number with you in case of emergency.

If you have a preexisting condition, get a copy of your medical records and ask your doctor for a letter outlining your condition and any medications you require.

If you are taking prescriptions with you, get at least a month's supply to ensure you have time to find a local doctor. Keep all prescription drugs in their original containers and make sure they are clearly labeled.

Resources

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) publishes the International Travel and Health guide. It's free to download, and provides information on vaccines and health warnings.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes The Yellow Book every two years. It's a reference primarily for health care providers, although you might find some information very useful.

  • The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) is a non-profit membership organization, that maintains a network of physicians who have agreed to treat IAMAT members in need of medical care. Membership is free and includes a directory of participating physicians, specialists, clinics, and hospitals in 125 countries.
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