The global pandemic is rewriting the rules of the game for travel insurance
November 30, 2020
Insurance has always been a numbers game. Providers have long been adept at striking a balance between making offerings attractive and including limitations that protect their bottom line. But the spread of COVID-19 has made keeping that equation in balance trickier than usual. Faced with the unique health challenges of 2020, the insurance industry is busy conjuring up new options for business travelers.
Most major insurance carriers provide some form of business travel assistance and health insurance, says Bruce McIndoe, president of McIndoe Risk Advisory. But pandemic-related international requirements have prompted insurers to up their game. “Since many countries require some level of health and extended stay/quarantine coverage specifically for COVID-19, most major carriers now provide this coverage,” he says.
This represents a major step forward. While some measure of coverage has always been available, it largely fell short of current needs.
“Most medical travel plans on the market prior to the pandemic excluded coverage for pandemics and epidemics, so folks were left without protection,” says Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners, a global travel insurance company. “Today, there are newer plans on the market that provide that all-important protection.”
Although business travel is still down a great deal, Murchland notes, an increase can be expected, and employees who travel need an insurance plan that protects them during the pandemic. His company is among those that have developed COVID-specific plans. “They include the same standard coverage that’s relevant for any type of illness or injury that occurs during a trip and also provide coverage for COVID treatment,” he explains.
Such developments come as good news for travelers who, while dealing with personal safety concerns, also desire some flexibility in making and changing plans. For instance, a recent survey of travel insurance customers conducted by InsureMyTrip revealed a strong interest in travel insurance plans with cancel-for-any-reason (CFAR) coverage. These plans also include emergency medical coverage and emergency medical evacuation, notes Suzanne Morrow, InsureMyTrip’s director of product and services.
Seven Corners is among those companies that have added specific COVID benefits that are distinctly identified in descriptions of coverage. Murchland points out this makes it clear there is coverage without the need to read through the policy line by line to verify it. “We also don’t tie our COVID coverage to travel advisories or warnings because it can make things confusing for travelers since advisories can change quickly and frequently,” he says. The company also added the descriptor “Plus” onto its updated plans to make it clear they have COVID coverage.
Insurance companies are not alone in adding COVID coverage. Since the summer, airlines and other travel providers have taken the initiative with their own plans. In July, Emirates announced air travelers would be covered for medical expenses up to $176,000 and quarantine costs of $118 daily for 14 days, with coverage obtained simply by buying a ticket. Virgin Atlantic followed suit in August with its own COVID-19 global insurance policy, with free coverage of $654,000 per person for emergency medical and associated expenses. The policy also extended to flights operated by joint carriers Delta and Air France KLM. WestJet’s September announcement was similar, increasing coverage limits to CA$200,000 for COVID-19 medical and quarantine costs.
Such moves haven’t been limited to airlines. As just one example, Palladium Hotel Group has begun offering free coverage that includes not only medical expenses but also transfers or extended stays.
Sorting Things Out
With the various new options and given the complex nature of insurance policies, travelers and their employers may find it a challenge to determine just what is – and what is not – included with any offering.
Of course, reading the fine print of any policy is a must. In addition, Murchland advises consideration of annual plans. This involves buying coverage once a year, and then the traveler can take as many trips during the year as needed. “It’s a convenient option for busy travelers, and we modified our annual plan to include a COVID-19 benefit,” he says.
While any provider will furnish the relevant details, an unbiased site can prove a boon for travelers comparing coverage. That was the impetus behind InsureMyTrip’s new COVID-19 recommendation tool launched in September. Prospective travelers can explore plans offering coverage for trip cancellation, cancel for any reason, trip interruption and quarantining, as well as coverage included in comprehensive travel insurance plans such as emergency medical and financial default.
Regardless of whether options directly related to COVID-19 are available, one step worth considering is making sure insurance purchases include CFAR. That can provide timely flexibility in dealing with circumstances ranging from a spike in cases at a business destination to emerging concerns within a traveler’s family. Typically, a plan without CFAR will provide reimbursement for nonrefundable trip expenses if a trip is canceled for a covered reason. For any situation that doesn’t meet a specifically covered reason, the cost will not be reimbursed.
To meet standard requirements, travelers should be prepared to cancel a trip at least two days before a scheduled departure. It’s also important to buy CFAR as soon as possible after the initial trip deposit. Generally it’s only available within a defined period such as 10 to 21 days of the purchase.
No Place Like Home
Another feature meriting attention is medical evacuation when a traveler becomes ill with COVID-19. “What is the ability and benefit offered to return a traveler to their home country for medical treatment?” McIndoe asks. He says anyone who travels frequently, especially internationally, may want to explore a medical assistance program that will provide transportation back to the hospital of choice.
Some policies such as business travel accident (BTA’s) policies, personal travel insurance, and personal health insurance (for domestic travel) may feature limited coverage for medical evacuation. But medical transport and travel security provider Medjet has taken things further in response to the pandemic. In October, the company announced it has added medical transport coverage for COVID-19 for the continental US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Going forward, the kind of attention now given to COVID-19 should not be forgotten, says Mike Hallman, Medjet’s CEO. “People need to have a solid plan for dealing with any health event while traveling,” he says. “Travelers and plan managers need to understand the limitations of their current BTA’s, travel insurances and health insurance coverages, and make sure there’s added protection in place to get someone transferred home.”
John Thompson, division president of international accident and health for global insurance provider Chubb, predicts that insurance products will continue to adopt enhancements that allow organizations to better fulfill their duty of care for employees who are traveling for work.
“This will allow corporations and employees to eventually recover and ‘get back to the skies’ with peace of mind,” he says. New benefits and coverages for the direct and indirect risks of COVID may include expanded insurance coverage, addition of new benefits and removal of coverage exclusions.
Just as with the pandemic itself, the future directions of such initiatives may be difficult to predict. It’s possible providers will pull back from options related to COVID-19 or similar challenges once the current pandemic is largely behind us. But it’s also likely that travelers will continue to expect to have such choices available in the event another widespread health challenge emerge.