International Health Insurance Options for Expats
There are many factors to consider when visiting or relocating to Latin America. The question of health insurance is an important one to answer before you get there.
Do I need to purchase private health insurance?
First you’ll need to decide if you even need to purchase private health insurance. This will depend largely on the length of your proposed stay and the coverage offered by your current health insurance in your home country. Many U.S. health insurance policies do not cover any medical treatment obtained outside the United States. However, there are some that do.
Still others may cover only emergency medical treatment or air evacuation back to the U.S. Even in situations where U.S. policy coverages do extend, the out-of-network rate usually applies. Plus you’ll likely need to pay the bill yourself up front and then get reimbursed later, which could be a real headache for major expenses.
It’s important to read up on your policy and understand what coverage it provides. Don’t just assume you’re protected once you leave. Travelers can also obtain temporary health insurance that will help in the event of an emergency while they’re out of the country.
Some countries even offer free emergency health insurance to tourists for a limited time while they’re within the country’s borders. Panama is one. The coverage is good for 30 days and is only available to those who enter through Tocumen International Airport.
What if I plan to relocate permanently?
For those who plan to reside extensively or even permanently in another country, you’ll likely need to seek private insurance. If you already have a policy, start by finding out if it (or another policy with the same company) will be of any assistance.
Be aware that Medicare and many other government programs are not available to those residing outside the U.S. Nor is medical evacuation back to the States.
There are a few expats who choose not to carry private health insurance for a variety of reasons. Some countries may have government-sponsored health insurance that is available to foreign residents (although it might not offer patients the same comforts and freedoms of private insurance).
Some expats choose to self-insure their medical expenses. This is a viable option for many, since the cost of medical treatment in Latin American countries is often a fraction of what the same procedure would cost in the U.S. However, it’s best reserved for those who are in good health and who also have the financial solvency to bear the burden of any medical expenses should the unthinkable happen.
Where do I go to look for health insurance?
If the extent of your experience with health insurance in your home country was seeing the line item where it was debited from your paycheck each week, you might want to consider the advice of a qualified insurance specialist. Find an agent in your destination country who represents multiple companies and can research all of them to recommend the policy that is the best fit for your needs.
On the other hand, if you feel like you have a good understanding of how this stuff works, you can also shop and compare on your own. There are many companies who offer health insurance policies that are tailored for expats. Some popular choices are Global Health, Aetna, HCC, Bupa, IMG, and Seven Corners, to name a few.
What factors do I need to consider when shopping for health insurance?
Cost – While cost is certainly an important thing to compare when shopping for health insurance, make sure you consider all the aspects of it. Not just the premium. Look at the cost to benefit ratio, as lower premiums often mean lower limits or higher copayments. Also find out if it has annual percentage increases or any other hidden costs.
Coverage Area – Will your new plan cover you if you travel outside your destination country? Or if you return to the U.S.? Examine the terms carefully to see where your coverage extends. There are a lot of worldwide policies available. For a bit of a savings, you can also find global policies that specifically exclude the U.S. Because its health care costs are some of the highest in the world.
Plan Features – Make sure you understand all the ins and outs of your new coverage. Does it cover only in-network providers, or will you have the freedom to choose? You’ll want to ensure that the limits are adequate. They may apply per year or over your lifetime. There may also be individual limits on specific services such as air evacuation. See if your policy covers things like repatriation, the return of mortal remains in the event of a person’s death.
Pre-existing Conditions – If you have any, make sure your new policy will cover them. It’s not uncommon for certain health problems to be excluded under a new policy or to require additional premiums.
Payment Format – Many international policies don’t pay via direct billing like they do in the U.S. Many policies may require you to pay the charges up front and file for reimbursement.
- Fine Print – Read your policy carefully before you sign on the dotted line. International health insurance can be tricky, and you don’t want to find out the hard way that an expensive procedure you need isn’t covered. The fine print may spell out details such as when coverage expires, benefits levels that are lowered after a certain age, or situations that might cause your premium to increase (like filing excessive claims).