Martin Firestone: What Snowbirds Need to Know About Travel Insurance

SNOWBIRDS SERIES
By Sheryl Smolkin

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When people who are retiring are asked what they plan to do after work they frequently say they’re going to travel more. And many elect to become snowbirds who escape to destinations with warmer climates for several months a year. However, for older Canadians traveling outside the country, getting the right travel insurance coverage at an affordable price is a key concern before they set off on their journey.

Therefore, to kick off Saskatchewan Pension Plan’s Snowbird Series for November, I’m interviewing Martin Firestone, President of Travel Secure, a company that specializes in travel insurance. Since he opened the company in 2003 he has become well-known for his expertise, and he has frequently been quoted in the media.

Thanks for joining me today Martin.

Q: Martin, travel insurance can be broken down into several components. Can you tell me what they are?
A: Sure. The first would be “Emergency Out-of-Country Medical.” The second coverage is “Trip Cancellation and Interruption” insurance that is typically part of a deluxe package that includes lost baggage, missed flights and default of supplier protection.

Q: Why is it so important for snowbirds who are going to be out of the country for a month or more to obtain the right kind of coverage?
A: I don’t even think it’s a month or more. I think one hour out of our province is where the problems begin in this game. It’s important because quite frankly you’re not covered if you have a medical emergency once you’re out of your province.

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about travel insurance or the need for travel insurance?
A: I think the biggest one is that your government health insurance program covers you while you’re traveling. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If there is any coverage at all, we are looking at a fraction of the cost. People also think that if they don’t feel well, they will hop on a plane and come home. But lots of people we deal with can’t get on a plane. They’re not stable enough to be flown 30,000 feet in the air. And the final one is really, people think that they’re immortal and they won’t get sick.

Q: Many people have travel insurance through their credit cards. What are the pros and cons of credit card coverage?
A: The biggest problem with credit card coverage is there is no underwriting at time of application, because there is no application. You have a credit card. It has a travel insurance element, but it’s very difficult to understand what the fine print means. In that scenario you have a claim, and then you apply for payment. That’s when the true underwriting happens, and when you may find out that in fact you do not actually have coverage.

Q: The other issue, of course, with credit card insurance, particularly for snowbirds is – as I understand it – there are caps on the length of time you can be away.
A: Absolutely. So when you turn 50, then maybe it’s only covering you for up to 15 days at any one time. Then you turn 65, it reduces to six days. And then ultimately, at certain ages it just reduces to zero days.

Q: Now, some people have annual travel policies that would cover them for everything from a one day jaunt to more lengthy trips without having to think about getting insurance every single time. What do travelers need to know about these policies?
A: If you purchase an annual travel insurance policy, it basically states that you can travel up to a specified number of days as many times as you want during the year. It is an excellent product with one small problem. If there is a change in your health during the given year, you cannot make an assumption that the annual policy is going to be adequate. In fact, it could be worthless depending on the stability period. So if you have an annual policy, you always have to check in with the broker or the insurer and explain when you have a change in stability.

Q: What does stability mean?
A: Stability is simply what an insurer needs to know about how long it has been since you’ve had a change in medication. A change in medication can be an increase, a decrease, even being taken totally off a drug. And a change in the insurance world is a risk. So insurance stability periods can range anywhere from seven days to 90 days to 180 days or even one year. This simply means that if you have had a change in the last year and the stability period in the policy is 365 days, you will not be covered for that particular condition.

Q: Now, again, some snowbirds have group travel insurance as part of their retiree benefits or membership in an alumni group. Are there similar potential problems with these policies?
A: Very much so. The biggest thing you have to worry about with group, alumni, retirement, or ongoing employer-sponsored group plans is the length of the stability period. And the major problem we’re finding now with group benefits is determining whether or not the client really eligible. If the policy says you have to be at work for at least 25 hours/week for 50 weeks, how could you possibly spend six months down in Florida and still be an eligible employee?

Q: But what about people who retire and are still covered by the group policy?
A: Very good question. There are large companies that do have post-retirement coverage. It’s very important to check with your HR department or the people who are administering the plan to confirm what the stability period is, how many days you can be out of the country, and confirm other aspect of your coverage.

Q: There are several online companies or online groups that allow potential purchasers to compare prices and features and then purchase a policy. What do they need to watch out for? What would your concern be about that method of purchasing travel insurance?
A:It’s one thing to see what various competitors are charging and what their policies cover, but there’s still the problem that you may not understand the questions you answered. So without a third party, a live person to question whether you have high-blood pressure, you run the risk that what you actually requested or what the search engine spits out is still not a policy that’s going to cover you.

Q: And what about travel insurance sold by travel agencies? How does their product differ from policies offered by an online purchaser or broker?
A: Travel agents are not licensed the way an insurance agent is to sell travel insurance. That doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re selling. It’s just that they typically sell only one product. You may get some coverage, but again the fine print may indicate that it does not cover you for certain conditions. So it’s not even an issue of stability periods. If you take medication for something, that condition may not be covered.

Q: So what value do you think a broker can add to the whole process?
A: Well, on top of being licensed and having studied to learn about travel insurance, they can offer policies from several different companies. And I guess the other part is, they’re available at claim time, which at the end of the day, is probably the strongest asset of anyone selling travel insurance. They don’t get lost after the sale. They’re there to help you when there’s a claim.

Q: How much coverage is enough?
A: $1 million is more than enough. I personally have never seen a claim that exceeded $1 million. I think any of the other policies with $2 million or $5 million coverage out there are just sizzle.

Q: So regardless of how or where snowbirds purchase travel insurance, what kind of questions should they be asking?
A: The most important thing they should be asking is “What is the stability period?” They should also be asking if they have to go to a specific network of hospitals or whether if they get ill, they can just go anywhere they want. Having to go to a network where an insurer has a special pricing arrangement does help the premiums and ultimately the cost of the whole adventure. But you got to know what you’re buying.

Q: What kind of activities may be excluded by a policy?
A: Typically high-risk activities. We’re talking about downhill skiing, scuba diving — things like that. If the policy is sold properly, and there is an exclusion explained prior to the sale of a policy, then that’s fine.

Q: Now, you talked about underwriting at the time of purchase and underwriting at the time of claim. Could you clarify that for me a bit more?
A: With some credit cards and various forms of group coverage, you get travel insurance automatically. Not once do they ask you about your medical conditions, how many meds you take, your stability or anything else. So there’s no way that they could make an assessment of you, until claim time when the doctor’s reports are ordered and a phone call is made asking you about your health and your conditions. Of course, if A doesn’t line up with B, that’s when you get a letter that your claim has been denied.

Q: How typical is it for a carrier to deny coverage if a medical question was improperly answered, even if the subsequent medical condition is totally unrelated?
A: That one is a thorn in many people’s side but it is a fact of life. You answered a question wrong with respect to whether you use a puffer or you don’t. You are on vacation, you have a perforated stomach and the bill comes to $300,000. You’ll get a letter the next week saying that unfortunately, you didn’t answer the puffer question right, so the insurance company is denying your claim for a perforated stomach. This is one of the most talked about, most frustrating realities that gives the industry a bad name.

Q: Are some snowbirds simply uninsurable?
A: I would say that at minimum, the best insurance policy out there requires that the individual be stable for at least seven days. They also can’t be traveling against the advice of their physician.

Q: So if somebody has a cancer or something of that nature, could they be covered if they’ve been stable, let’s say for the seven days?
A: Yes, as long as the policy states that seven days prior to departure there were no tests, investigations or medication changes, then you would be covered up to the policy amount.

Q: I see. But might there be specific conditions excluded?
A: There shouldn’t be. If you can honestly say that, I, for the last seven days before going away, have not had any issues, then you should be fully covered for all pre-existing conditions.

Q: But that would be a policy you could typically get only from a broker?
A: Absolutely. There are only certain proprietary products out there that have a clause, which is called “the guaranteed stability rider.” That rider is not cheap, but it gives you the peace of mind that when you’re away you’ll be covered for all issues that you may have.

Q: Thank you very much Martin. Talking with you today has been very informative.
A: My pleasure.


This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in September 2015.

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