A British woman was trapped for six weeks in the United States because her misunderstanding of insurance rules meant she was unable to pay medical fees totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds and had no means to get home.
Hers was far from a unique case: Britain’s insurers refuse nearly 55,000 claims a year from holidaymakers who run into trouble abroad and only then discover their insurance policy will not protect them as they expected.
Denise Griggi, 63, was trapped in San Diego, California, unable to pay medical fees of £200,000. Doctors said she was too ill to travel on a normal flight and needed an air ambulance to get her back to Britain. Such flights can cost more than £150,000.
Mrs Griggi, who is from St Columb Major in Cornwall and suffers from a congenital heart condition, fell ill on a flight to California. She thought she was covered for medical expenses under a policy that she had through her Lloyds bank account. But, as she did not declare her condition, underwriters at Axa refused to pay.
In the end she flew home last week on a normal flight against medical advice. But she still faces huge bills for the treatment she received in America.
Insurance sources estimate that each year about 3,500 holidaymakers are left to foot medical bills themselves after falling ill abroad because they failed to disclose health issues fully to their insurer.
Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers said no travel policy would cover pre-existing conditions unless they were fully declared when the policy was taken out.
“Consumers must always tell their insurer about any previous illnesses or ongoing health conditions,” he said. “They should also read the small print carefully to understand what might be excluded.” Of growing concern are insurance policies that come as part of banking or travel packages, where consumers are not adequately screened.
Jan Dalrymple-White, of MIA Online, which specialises in insurance for individuals with serious health problems, said: “Providing cover as part of any package is very dangerous. Banks aren’t travel insurers. This is not their area of expertise, and no one reads all the paper that comes with packages.
“These policies are designed for people with no previous health problems. The onus is on the customer to ring up the bank and initiate health screening. If they don’t and subsequently need to claim, they are stuck.”
What can you do if you get caught by ‘non-disclosure’?
Insurers may not automatically reject all claims on the grounds of non-disclosure, so it is worth appealing to them. Different companies may have a different approach. The key question will be: would they have covered the condition had it been declared? If the answer is yes the insurer may still pay a claim. If no, the claim will be rejected. But such decisions are discretionary. You can appeal to theFinancial Ombudsman Service if you believe your insurance claim has been wrongly rejected.
Always take a European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) with you when you travel to any EU country or to Iceland, Norway, Switzerland or Liechtenstein. This entitles you to the same free medical treatment in state hospitals as locals receive. You may be required to make the same contribution to your treatment as locals, as few systems are completely free at the point of need like the NHS.
However, the Ehic will not pay for any special arrangements for your journey back to Britain if you are unable to return by public transport.
If you fall ill in the US, your options are limited. Most states have charity hospitals that treat those who cannot pay for medical care.
How to get home
Mr Dalrymple-White said American hospitals were notoriously quick to label a patient as unfit for a scheduled flight and said there could be options that would prove cheaper than an extremely expensive air ambulance. He said: “It can be worth getting an independent report from a specialist in the repatriation business.
They may be able to come up with cheaper alternatives.” It may, for example, be possible to fly first class, perhaps accompanied by a doctor or nurse, which might cut the cost of repatriation to tens of thousands .
What banks’ travel insurance covers
Lloyds and Bank of Scotland both offer Silver accounts, which cost £9.95 a month and include free family travel insurance to Europe for account holders aged up to 64. The cover has a long list of exclusions, including any condition associated with any prescribed medicine you are already taking, as well as all pre-existing conditions. For worldwide travel up to the age of 79, both banks have Platinum packages for a monthly fee of £17. These, too, have stringent exclusions.
Halifax offers worldwide cover as part of its Ultimate Reward account, with a £10 monthly fee. This has an age limit of 70. NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland also offer travel insurance as part of various packaged accounts, mainly up to the age of 69. Once customers reach their 70th birthday they face an additional £50 fee and must undergo medical screening.
Some accounts, such as NatWest and RBS Silver Reward, which has a monthly fee of £12, cover only the main account holder and have a maximum period of travel of 22 days. Cover is restricted to Europe. Reward Platinum, with an £18 monthly fee, covers the whole family travelling worldwide up to age 69. Individual trips are limited to 31 days. The top of the range, Reward Black, which charges a £28 monthly fee, has no upper age limit. Trips can extend to 90 days, although winter sports trips are limited to 31 days. All previous medical conditions are strictly excluded, unless declared.
Barclays no longer sells travel insurance as part of its packaged deals. Instead, customers can opt to buy a travel insurance package for £13.50 monthly to cover the family worldwide, provided that the main account holder and partner are under 80.