International Health Insurance – What’s Covered?

6th February, 2014

There’s a strong demand for first class international health insurance for a very good reason. Many countries’ public health services can’t keep up with demand, medical treatment costs are rising and alternatives are more important than ever, especially if you’re an expatriate. If you are living and working abroad, you might find medical treatment is often expensive and difficult to arrange, particularly in an emergency. You need health cover.

On the other hand everyone is different. Some of us are more likely to take risks than others. Some of us buy every insurance product on the market in an effort to stay safe, others take the risk and buy the minimum insurance protection. If you are not 100% sure whether or not you need international health insurance, here’s some information to help you make the right decision.

Do I really need international medical insurance?

Medical health insurance costs money and like every major financial decision, it deserves careful thought. So what are the pros and cons of having international medical insurance?

First, the cons. You have to pay for it. And you might never make a claim. But that’s about it. The list of pros is much longer:

  • no worrying about whether or not you can afford to get treatment because of the expense
  • if something truly dreadful happens it can often cover you for repatriation – being repatriated by air costs a great deal of money, especially when you need a specialist air ambulance
  • no wondering whether or not you qualify for free or reduced cost health services in your new home country
  • fast, no-fuss health care with a simple claims process and 24/7 support
  • no nasty shocks when you realise just how expensive the simplest treatments are when you have to pay for them yourself
  • no having to find cash up front for treatment
  • no difficulties trying to find a trustworthy doctor
  • the peace of mind of knowing you and your family can get the treatment they need, when they need it, without delay
  • help navigating an unfamiliar health service
  • no having to save up to cover potential medical emergencies

You could be turned away at the airport without expatriate health insurance

In some cases you might even find you are turned away at your destination airport without medical cover. Countries like Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands all demand that residents have cover through a locally registered and approved provider, to satisfy local regulations. And British expats who are living in in Spain and France but not registered as working and not paying tax must have appropriate health insurance.

If you are planning to move to Australia or the UAE, you also need to give evidence of appropriate medical cover to satisfy the countries’ strict visa regulations. If you can’t, you might be turned away at the airport. And foreign nationals in Abu Dhabi must have a comprehensive medical insurance plan from a licensed provider.

As The Telegraph newspaper said in May 2013:

“Of the 150,000 people who leave the UK each year, many have inadequate insurance or none at all. They wrongly assume that in extremis some hospital or other will take pity – just as the National Health Service does on the basis that the foreign national will eventually pay up (90 per cent don’t according to reports).”

Can I just rely on ordinary travel insurance?

You can buy extended break travel insurance that covers you for as long as a year abroad. But while travel insurance policies include a medical care element, they are designed to offer general protection, not the comprehensive healthcare provided by international health cover. Some foreign nationals say they manage with ordinary holiday travel insurance, but it can be risky and definitely won’t work in places like Abu Dhabi, where the rules are strict and only likely to become stricter.

Choosing the best medical insurance companies

There are plenty of providers to choose from. But how do you pick the best of the bunch? You need someone whose international health insurance policies really do take the stress out of healthcare, making sure you and your loved ones can get the right medical help when you need it, wherever you are in the world.

You can pick cheap medical insurance if you like, but it’s more important to choose cover that gives you everything you need instead of cutting corners. Look for a provider who delivers all this:

  • Personal case management if you need it – access to an independent expert to review your case and make sure you’re getting the right treatment
  • Friendly, expert people available on the phone 24/7 to support you – qualified nurses and counsellors to help with any medical questions.
  • Emergency assistance including emergency evacuation and repatriation if you can’t get the right treatment locally
  • Full access to your policy online, where you can also find the right healthcare provider, make claims, check on claims progress and download your policy
  • A handy multi-lingual Security Hotline service open 24/7 for help just in case you find yourself in unfamiliar territory
  • Flexible cover that you can tailor to your actual needs
  • More or less instant access to treatment anywhere in the world
  • Plenty of the world’s best health providers at hand for speedy access to diagnosis and treatment wherever you live (we, for example, work closely with at least 10,500 of the world’s best medical providers)

Sensible questions to ask yourself

Most good health insurance products let you access healthcare treatment anywhere in the world. What do you need to find out when choosing the best policy for your needs?

  1. Does the policy include outpatient care? If you need it, make sure you have cover for things like GPs, physiotherapists, dermatologists, paediatricians and so on.
  2. Do I need to include routine and complex dental care? If so, make sure your policy covers it. Routine dental care includes things like check ups, cleaning and basic fillings, while complex dental treatment includes things like crowns, dentures, inlays, bridges and their repair. There’s usually a waiting period before you can claim, anywhere between 6-9 months. You might also find there’s an excess, a sum you pay up front before claiming – often 20% of the final bill.
  3. Do I or will I need routine maternity care? If so make sure there’s a routine maternity option available. Most insurers cover emergency treatment during pregnancy and childbirth but not the everyday costs of things like check-ups, scans and delivery costs. There’s usually a waiting period of 9 to 12 months.
  4. Do I have any pre-existing medical conditions? If so it’s essential to declare them no matter how insignificant you think they are. If you have once suffered a medical condition or currently have it, your policy might be declared void unless you tell the insurer up front.
  5. Can I increase my excess and cut my premiums? Good policies are flexible enough for you to cut the cost by paying an excess.
  6. Does the product give me everything I need? If not, find one that does.
  7. Do they have a good customer service record? After all, you don’t really buy insurance. You buy peace of mind… which in context means you are actually buying a good claims service.  How fast do they pay claims? Do they provide online claims tracking? And are they financially secure? Only buy from an insurer or broker you know you can trust.

What should your expat health insurance cover?

Standard private health plans include essential treatment like surgery, consultations, nursing and hospital care. Policies usually exclude longer-term treatment like kidney dialysis and ongoing illnesses like asthma. They also tend to exclude normal pregnancy treatment and non-essential cosmetic work.

While they don’t include treatment for drug addiction or incurable conditions, comprehensive policies often provide extra benefits like complementary medicine and personal accident protection. Some policies also give you the option of adding cover for complementary therapies, private ambulances, home nursing and accommodation if your child is in hospital. The more comprehensive your cover, the more likely you’ll be offered these extras.

Some policies include psychiatric treatment but because it falls somewhere between a curable illness covered by your policy and long-term care, which isn’t covered under private medical insurance, it is more likely to be covered by comprehensive policies than bare-bones basic products. If you need to know, check before you buy.

What does it cost?

Premiums depend on your age, state of health, the level of cover you buy and whether you smoke. Premiums usually go up each year to keep up with increasing medical costs and your age. You can sometimes get a discount if you pay your annual premium up front. And plenty of policies come with a no claims bonus.

If you’re lucky your employer will provide private health insurance as part of your expat employment package. Check the cover on offer caters for all your needs before deciding whether to buy your own policy, with any extras you might need. Unlike standalone policies, company policies often include pre-existing conditions.

Policy and cover types

You will usually be given a choice of policies with different levels of cover, generally one or more top-level policies, which are fully comprehensive, plus a medium-level standard policy and a budget version.

Some insurers offer specialist policies that only kick in after a specified time, or are specially designed for the over 55s. Others focus on specific diseases, for example cancer. And modular policies are popular. They provide cover for in-patient treatment and let you add cover to tailor your policy directly to your needs.

2 vital questions to ask the insurer

To be on the safe side, it helps to ask the insurance company a couple of key questions:

  1. What are the exclusions? It’s just as important to know what is excluded as what is covered
  2. What level of cover is right for me, in my circumstances? Because insurance isn’t always easy to understand, a plain language recommendation will help you understand exactly what you need and why

Brokers versus insurers

You can either go to a fully independent broker, online or offline, with the entire market at their fingertips, or a tied broker who sells the products of one or a small number of insurers. Alternatively you can buy direct from the insurance company.

What does Wikipedia say?

Famous for its absolute impartiality, it’s always good to check Wikipedia. Here’s what Wikipedia says about expat health insurance:

The majority of international health insurance plans for expatriates are globally portable. This allows foreign nationals overseas to move fluidly form one country to the next without any periods of no cover. This is a significant difference from Local health insurance plans and makes these policies attractive to many individuals. For the most part, however, an international health insurance policy will not cover an individual when they have returned to their home nation, making the investment practical only if the policyholder is planning to be overseas for an extended period of time. There are some policies which do cover treatments in a persons home country.

Those travelling abroad for shorter periods of time, may wish to purchase a travel medical policy which can provide assistance during emergency medical situations abroad. These policies are less expensive as they are time specific rather than annual policies, this allows the policyholder to specifically tailor the plan to the exact length of their trip. A majority of international travel insurance policies will also allow the policyholder to be evacuated to the nearest center of medical excellence in the event of a serious illness or injury; it is also possible to obtain repatriation coverage.

It is important to understand how your medical policy will assist you should you need urgent medical care in your host country. Many countries have less than adequate facilities and may require immediate payment for services. Therefore, it is advisable to understand the assistance your policy will provide to locate suitable medical facilities.

Another important and often overlooked element of international health insurance policies is the underwriting criteria used by the insurance provider. There are two ways to underwrite policies: moratorium and full medical underwriting. A moratorium policy is one where if the applicant is treatment, symptom and advice-free of any medical condition for a period of time, they will be offered cover on the understanding that he or she will be underwritten every time they make a claim against their policy. Full medical underwriting is where the insurance provider asks a series of medical questions during the application process and provides the applicant with a details of what they will and will not be prepared to cover.

Buy now from people you can trust

As expat experts we’re ideally placed to supply you with exactly the right international health insurance for your needs, whether you’re moving abroad alone or with your family. Try us for a free quote, award-winning international health care and plenty of local expertise.

Recommended for you

Alison Massey

Group Marketing Director

Now Health International

Alison Massey is a 15-year digital marketing veteran, who has spent the last seven years using social media to help expats and soon to be expats find out what to expect from a life overseas. An expat living in Hong Kong herself, Alison is the Group Marketing Director of Now Health, the award-winning international health insurance provider.

Contact Alison Massey

Back To Top