Ask The Expat
Health Insurance Options Abroad
Choose From a Variety of Policies to Meet your Needs and Budget
In a previous issue I discussed “staying healthy” for expatriates. I’d like to pick up the topic of health again and this time talk about health insurance for expatriates.
While short-term travelers do not always need health insurance for their trip, expatriates should think carefully about getting health coverage. Expatriates have the advantage of living abroad long enough to adapt to local health threats, but they also face prolonged exposure to local health risks.
There are several health insurance options for expatriates, depending on the length of their stay and the type of activity they will pursue overseas. If you study abroad, you will most likely have mandatory health coverage through your university. This is a requirement for foreign students at many universities worldwide. You can also get very affordable student travel health insurance offered by a number of companies, for up to two years.
In many developed countries around the world, provided you have a work permit and are gainfully employed, you make monthly contributions to the national health care system and are automatically covered. This health coverage provides free or low-cost health services, including hospitalization, emergency room visits, and dental and vision care. In countries where the public health system is poor or nonexistent, many employers provide private health insurance for their employees. Unless your employee or student health policy is effective right away, you might want to consider traveler’s health insurance for the first few weeks or months of your stay abroad to make sure that you are covered.
If you don’t fall into any of the above-mentioned categories such as student or employee, you have several other options. Provided you have a legal residency permit, some countries will allow you to join the public health system, even though you may not be working or studying. Annual or monthly dues are usually very low, and you will have the same full health coverage as the employed. One drawback of joining the very affordable public health care system is that in a number of countries the service is strained to the limits, which results in long waits and a lower standard of care. As an alternative to public health care you can join a private health plan overseas, which is in most cases still much cheaper than getting traveler’s health insurance or continuing your existing coverage in the United States.
If you are not eligible for employee coverage, or the public health care system, you might have to consider travel health insurance from the United States, if you want to be insured while overseas. Insurance companies offer a wide variety of health coverage plans. If you don’t plan on spending a very long time abroad, you might be okay without any coverage and simply pay for public care as necessary. In many countries the cost of treatment at a public clinic or hospital is very cheap, even for patients who have to pay out-of-pocket.
If you decide to get travel health insurance in the United States before your departure, it is a good idea to compare different types of coverage and prices to select a policy that best meets your needs. Find out all the details and take the time to read the contract and fine print. If in doubt, call the company before signing up and make sure that all your questions are answered. Ask about how to proceed in case of hospitalization or the need for emergency evacuation. If you are moving overseas with your family and decide to get travel health insurance in the United States, you can sign up for a family plan, which is much cheaper than individual coverage of family members.
Most travel insurance policies only reimburse travelers for medical expenses after they return home, but some companies will arrange for direct payment of medical treatment or hospitalization, if you contact their emergency service by phone before your treatment or hospital visit. This would be useful if you plan to live abroad, since you won’t have to front the expenses. But even if you will only be reimbursed for medical expenses after your return home, you should still notify the insurance company as soon as possible. If you have medical bills you need reimbursed, make sure that you fulfill all the requirements for filing a claim, such as mailing in receipts for medical treatment and medication. If you are moving to a country with few health threats, you might want to consider a policy that only covers medical emergencies. On the other hand, if you are planning to live in a tropical or developing country, where there are often many infectious diseases, you might want to get coverage that includes doctor’s visits and medication, in addition to medical emergencies.
If the cost of comprehensive travel health insurance is too high and you are in good health, consider just a basic emergency health plan that covers only hospitalization. Also keep in mind that many insurance companies provide a variety of plans that give you a choice from a selection of fees, deductibles, and covered services. The higher the deductible (out-of-pocket expenses), the lower the cost of the coverage, and vice versa. This can help you keep costs down, especially if you get travelers’ health insurance for an extended period of time.
For More Info
For online articles and a list of companies that offer travel health insurance, see our “Insurance for Travelers and Expatriates” section.
The U.S. State Department also provides Medical Information for Americans Abroad, including a list of companies that offer travel health and emergency coverage: travel.state.gov/travel/tips/brochures/brochures_1215.html. To find a hospital or doctor for a specific country, see the U.S. State Department’s U.S. Embassies and Consulates websites at usembassy.state.gov.“ Medical Practitioners Lists” are usually found under the U.S. Citizens Services section of the Embassy or Consulate website.