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As province’s out-of-country health coverage ends, so begins an opportunity for brokers


January 13, 2020   by David Gambrill


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With the wind-down of Ontario’s limited Out-of-Country Travellers Program now official, brokers in the province who sell travel insurance have a golden opportunity to make sure their snowbird and other travelling clients are properly covered for trips.

“It is certainly an opportunity for brokers to cross-sell to some of their existing book at renewal time,” says Anne Marie Thomas, senior manager of partner relationships at InsuranceHotline.com, owned by Kanetix Ltd. “This cancellation of the out-of-province coverage is a great opportunity to have that discussion with policyholders or their current client base.”

Under the the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP)’s former Out-of-Country Travellers Program, Ontarians travelling outside Canada could receive reimbursement for services if they were “required as a result of condition that arose outside Canada, that was acute and unexpected and required immediate treatment.” Either the traveller or his or her private insurance company would pay for the treatment up-front, and then submit a request for reimbursement from OHIP.

As brokers point out, the province’s program – which provided a maximum $400 a day for medical bills incurred during international travel – offered only nominal coverage.

In December, CTV reported the story of a young Canadian couple who travelled to Thailand for six weeks; while overseas, the man was diagnosed with a massive brain tumour. After receiving drugs for temporary relief of the man’s migraine headache, the couple was offered the services of an air ambulance at a cost of $265,000. [The couple declined the offer, citing the high cost.]

In the Thailand example, the couple’s private insurer ultimately denied the claim, noting the man had checked into a Canadian hospital shortly before the trip, reporting a headache. The couple said he checked in with flu symptoms. The point is, medical bills for travel out of the country can escalate quickly, and the province’s program was never intended as a substitute for a more comprehensive travel insurance package.

“What the province was previously providing, $400 a day, is not much compared to what that family’s expenses were in Thailand,” Thomas observed in an interview. “Even if [Ontarians] go to Buffalo to go shopping just across the border,” medical costs can accumulate quickly, she said. “Let’s say you are going to be [in Buffalo] for the day. [Buffalo is a two-hour drive from Toronto]. You stop for lunch and you eat something. You have an allergic reaction. So, now you’ve got an ambulance cost for the IV, some states charge for paramedics appearing on scene, you’ve got the hospital stay, the tests – you could be in and out of the hospital for just one day, but thousands of dollars in the hole.”

Snowbirds challenging the province’s decision to cancel the Out-of-Country program, saying it denies Ontario travellers the constitutionally-protected “portability” of universal health care. “Snowbirds” are OHIP subscribers who spend the winter season in warmer locales, such as the Sunbelt region of the southern United States, the Caribbean, or the Southern Hemisphere.

Ontario’s website observes that insured Ontario residents will continue to receive coverage for physician and hospital services when visiting or moving to another Canadian province or territory. For those travelling outside the country, the Ontario government states: “Ontarians travelling abroad are always encouraged to purchase the appropriate travel insurance coverage in the event emergency health and doctor services are needed out of country. Many Ontarians already have travel health insurance through their workplace plans or credit cards.”

Here’s where brokers can provide real value, Thomas says, because there may be circumstances in which employee benefit plans or credit card plans do not provide enough coverage.

“The broker can explain: ‘Yes, people do get coverage under their employer benefits, that’s great, but is it enough?’” said Thomas. “They may think they have coverage through the credit card they used to purchase the trip. Is that enough? Or does that credit card coverage cover the credit card holder only? Does it cover their family or their travelling companions? There’s a lot to think about. It’s a great opportunity for a broker to have a conversation and provide another value-add to their policy policyholder.”

Now is a particularly good time for a broker to be proactive and reach out to snowbirds, Thomas said.

“Very often, a broker knows whether their client is a snowbird,” she said. “Because they will have to have made arrangements for their property or for their car. And that’s a perfect opportunity for a broker to say to a client, ‘While I have you, and while we are talking about your car and your house, are you covered for travel insurance? Do you have a travel insurance policy? Let me get you a quote.’”

Aside from renewal discussions, brokers may reach out to let clients know about the OHIP situation through letters to clients, newsletters, emails, or through some other form of “business update.”