Insider tips for avoiding a pre-existing insurance trap


Pamela O’Meara narrowly escaped the pre-existing conditions trap.

Oh, you know the trap. It’s the one where your insurance company tells you the policy is no good because your medical condition existed before you bought the policy. Yeah, that one.

I run into it almost every day on my consumer advocacy site.

O’Meara and her travel companion had booked a Viking ocean cruise. But before she could cast off, her back problems flared up and she had to cancel. I featured her case on my site a few weeks ago. Fortunately, she’d also purchased trip insurance, which she assumed would cover her.

“We sent many letters from doctors and made many follow-up calls,” she says. But the insurance company refused her request to refund $3,263. The problem, no doubt, was that word: “flare up” which strongly suggested she’d had a back problem before she purchased insurance.

“Most travel insurance companies will consider a pre-existing condition as a diagnosed illness or medical concern that has not been stable for a defined period of time prior to travel,” explains Joe Watts, a vice president at HMA Worldwide, Holmes Murphy & Associates, an insurance broker. “The defined period of time varies between insurance carriers, but it is typically 90 to 180 days.”

In other words, travel insurance underwriters are pretty strict about medical conditions that existed previously. But there’s a way around it, say experts.

Fill out the questionnaire
A travel insurance company can cover a pre-existing condition, says Ian Paterson, a former travel insurance company employee who now blogs about insurance. “I sell travel insurance on a daily basis and cover pre-existing medical regularly,” he explains. “Pre-existing conditions need to be reported and a questionnaire filled out that meets my insurance partner’s terms.” That can increase the cost of a policy, but the coverage is worth it. Note: Some policies will cover a traveler for claims unrelated to pre-existing medical conditions, even if they were not declared. But it’s probably not worth taking that chance.

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Know the limits of the waiver
A pre-existing condition waiver — what you get by filling out the questionnaire — applies only if you are healthy enough to travel at the time that the trip is confirmed, and without any reason to expect that the status of your health would change, according to Mina Agnos, president of Travelive, a travel agency. “If you have a long-term medical issue that does not affect your daily life and activities, you can purchase a pre-existing condition waiver. If that condition then flares up to disrupt your travel plans, then it should in effect be covered,” she says.


Switch policies
Consider a “cancel for any reason” policy, which covers pre-existing medical conditions. It’s more expensive than a garden variety “named exclusions” policy, and if you file a claim, you’ll only get a percentage back. But if you don’t meet the requirements of the waiver, it might be worth it. Other policies (the named exclusion variety) automatically cover a pre-existing condition if it’s purchased within 14 to 21 days of your initial deposit. “One major pro to purchasing a comprehensive travel insurance policy is simply peace of mind,” says Joel Ohman, a financial planner. “Enjoy your travels without having to worry about potential medical care issues.”

Consider supplemental coverage
If for some reason you can’t get the coverage you want, you might want to consider additional coverage like MedJet. It offers a supplemental layer of protection that ensures you can be brought home in a medical emergency for a pre-existing condition.

And finally, it’s important to monitor your health between the time you buy your policy and your travel.

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“Most policies don’t lock in your good health at the time of purchase,” notes Daphne Hendsbee, a spokeswoman for the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers. “Check your policy to see if you’re required to report any health changes that could affect your medical stability between the date of purchase and date of departure. Based on this new information, the insurer may cancel coverage, provide partial coverage, or increase your premium or deductible. If you don’t report changes, your claim may be denied because you did not report a pre-existing condition.”

It’s easy to understand why an insurance company won’t cover pre-existing conditions, at least from the company’s perspective. But it’s hard to understand why insurance companies allow customers to buy coverage with the impression that they’ll be covered, when they actually aren’t. And that’s where stories like this can help.

O’Meara’s case had a happy ending. I contacted her insurance company on her behalf, and she also filed an appeal. It turns out she was covered for her pre-existing condition.It turns out she had a special policy under which certain pre-existing conditions could either qualify for a voucher toward a future cruise or a refund. After reviewing her case, her insurance company agreed to cut her a check for $3,263.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • SirWIred

    Personally, I think the insurance companies do a pretty decent job detailing the pre-ex exclusions. While the details can be wordy, the basic existence of the exclusion is pretty easy to spot if you look at the policy at all before/after buying. And certainly the existence of such an exclusion makes sense. (Adverse Selection can be expensive for insurance companies and for policyholders.)

    I think where some people get tripped up is they don’t consider that if you have to cancel because of a relative taking ill, many policies will exclude claims for their pre-existing conditions also. (Some policies, such as Travelex, do not do this, but most do.) Few people are fully aware of the health conditions of all their close relatives (nor should they be.)

    Personally, I never buy a policy unless I can get a pre-ex waiver, making it all moot. The usual exception to those waivers, that you must be able to travel as of the day you purchase the policy, does not, in my experience, apply to non-travelling family members. It IS important to note that most pre-ex waivers have time-of-purchase and coverage-amount requirements, and you should make sure you meet them.

  • FQTVLR

    Like SirWired, I never purchase trip insurance without that preexisting waiver. I have had a medical condition since birth and it will occasionally prevent me from traveling. Travelex is my usual insurance and I also have MedJet. Shopping around taught me a lot about insurance. Anyone with a preexisting condition needs to look at policies carefully before buying. The information about preexisting is usually not buried in the fine print–with the exception of relatives’ preexisting condition which is a bit harder to find. People like me, with an ongoing medical problem, need to carefully research before buying. Insurance can be difficult for us, but researching policies carefully helps avoid a lot of pitfalls associated with preexisting conditions.

  • Kairho

    Do you find that sticking to one company, which presumably knows about your pre-ex and hasn’t had to pay out on it, makes it easier to get the coverage, with or without a waiver?

  • Byron Cooper

    I am on my third Viking cruise. If the OP bought the insurance at the time of booking through Viking, all pre-existing conditions are covered. The Viking cruise insurance is through Trip Mate. I had one cruise that required medical attention for a pre-existing condition. I had no problem getting reimbursed for the medical care. Perhaps the OP bought insurance from another company or did not buy the insurance at the time of booking. Since the Viking insurance includes a provision to cancel for any reason there should not have been a problem. Without a covered reason you get a credit for a future cruise.

  • Inquirer1111

    I thought if you purchased the policy at the same time as your ticket, that would cover all pre-existing conditions that were stable at the time of purchase? But then again, I’ve always used Travelex.

  • cscasi

    Only if you purchase the “pre-existing waiver”. That is included in some policies that cover more than “basic”. I know the company I use has different policies at different prices. So, one has ot pay attention and know what is covered and what is not.

  • FQTVLR

    They have paid out 3 times over a 17-year time frame. I just like the fact that they do not look back at preexisting conditions on those who are not traveling. And they include the waiver if you purchase within so many days of initial deposit on the trip.

  • LonnieC

    I’ve traveled with Odysseys Unlimited many times, and if you purchase the trip insurance at the time of initial booking (or within a short time – < 12 days?) the pre-existing disqualifier is waived. Never had to use it – just sayin'. Personally, another advantage if buying travel insurance through the travel company as part of the trip package is that the cost is related to the trip cost, not your age. In my case that saves a lot.

  • Michael__K

    If the OP bought the insurance at the time of booking through Viking, all pre-existing conditions are covered.

    She DID buy the Viking policy through Trip Mate and she was initially denied anyway, according to Chris’ previous article about this case: http://www.elliott.org/the-troubleshooter/back-pain-caused-cancel-cruise-why-wont-trip-mate-pay-claim/

    Either they got their wires crossed and didn’t realize she bought her policy in time, or they (falsely) assumed she was not fit to travel at the time of purchase (although they didn’t ask for such documentation from her doctor until after she appealed the denial).

  • mbods2002

    What I don’t understand is why they put her through the wringer when she was actually covered. How could it have been so difficult for them to figure out, I mean it’s THIER policy. Sounds very shady to me and NOT good customer service.

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