Medical evacuation insurance: another cautionary travel tale

Last month, my parents went to Florida for two weeks against the advice of their four children. We were worried that my father, who is on oxygen and has multiple medical problems, would take a turn for the worse and end up in a hospital. They decided to go anyway (parents today...they just don't listen).

Before they left, I urged my father to buy medical evacuation insurance, a specific type of travel insurance that retrieves "members" from anywhere in the world and transports them to the hospital of their choice. Last year, I edited an article for a website called Traveling Mom about the benefits of an insurance plan provided by a company called MedJet Assist. Afterward, I told my parents about the company and the week before they left for Florida, I spoke with them again and my father said he bought similar insurance via American Express.

You know what happened next. My dad, who has a blood disorder that makes his hemoglobin count drop to life threatening levels (among other medical problems brought on by 40 plus years of smoking), ended up in the hospital. It got so bad he needed a blood transfusion. They stabilized him but he just wanted to get back home to New Jersey.

Lo and behold, the American Express policy didn't actually provide emergency evacuation; it just pays for your travel expenses if you have to buy a last minute ticket on a commercial airline. So my parents ended up paying for a "critical care air ambulance," equipped with a stretcher, medical life support equipment, two pilots and two medical crew members, through a company called Res-q-jets. The company flew my mother, father and brother, who flew to Florida to help out, into Philadelphia, then drove my father by ambulance to the hospital in New Jersey. This "bedside to bedside" service cost $12,000, not covered by any insurance.

There's no question it was the right thing to do because my father has spent the last month back and forth between a hospital and a rehab facility, and he's had some close calls. This is obviously the most upsetting part of the ordeal, but I'm also sick over the fact that I could have prevented the exorbitant cost -- it would have cost a mere $195 via Medjet Assist for both of my parents for two weeks' coverage. An annual membership costs $225 for an individual and $350 for a family. Medjet is just one of several such companies that offer this type of program. As far as I can tell, there is no fine print, and people can't be excluded from joining due to preexisting conditions. You just have to sign up before your trip.

When I think of the places I've been without emergency evacuation insurance -- trekking in Thailand or driving aimlessly through vineyards in the Priorat region of Spain, just south of Barcelona -- and I can't even imagine what a hospital in Vietnam back in 1993, before American borders opened up, would have been like! Given my father's experience, emergency medical insurance seems like a small price to pay and now, I don't think I'll leave home without it.

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