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Insuring the Health of Employees Traveling Abroad

Find solid coverage, coordinate your company's efforts and educate traveling employees on handling health emergencies

A woman is standing in front of an airport departure board.

It's 1 a.m., and the HR director is on the phone with a colleague who is traveling in a foreign country on business and who has a medical emergency. Thoughts race through the HR director's head: "Is she OK?" "Does our health insurance take care of this?" "How does it work?" "I don't know who to call."

Many companies lack a solid emergency plan for employees traveling abroad. An HR department may not realize that the company's existing health insurance already covers medical treatment outside the country. At the same time, executives who oversee risk management may unknowingly purchase duplicative insurance. And some companies buy insurance without realizing that there are significant coverage gaps. When the risk manager and the HR director come together to develop a comprehensive plan, they can deliver much better protection for employees and the employer.

The time to dust off and review insurance policies is now—before an employee faces a health emergency when traveling internationally.

An Array of Options

The insurance industry offers coverage options specifically for employees traveling or working abroad. These range from specialty health policies for employees on foreign assignments (i.e., foreign placement coverage) to business travel accident policies.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2016 Employee Benefits survey report, 41 percent of SHRM members said that their organizations offered travel accident insurance that provides coverage for employees who might be harmed while on business travel, up from 37 percent in 2012.

There also are stand-alone service providers that specialize in helping with foreign travel risk using a "concierge" model that makes available personalized assistance for navigating care issues outside the home country, providing access to the service when needed. The concierge can facilitate medical referral and treatment and can arrange medical transport with pass-through billing at the time care is received. 

Some health insurers offer coverage to reimburse medical expenses incurred abroad, although they may have difficulty guaranteeing immediate payment for medical services at the time of an emergency.

On the risk management side, property and casualty insurers offer employee medical solutions as part of a "foreign package" that provides coverage against a variety of risks. Some corporate risk managers procure business travel accident policies, which can sometimes be duplicative with other coverage, including risk management policies or the company's employee health and welfare plans.

If existing health insurance or a specialized emergency service can effectively cover treatment abroad, there may be no need to make arrangements for separate casualty solutions to cover this risk. Likewise, if the better solution is to use business travel accident coverage, check whether there are existing risk management solutions in place that provide this coverage.

[SHRM members-only policies: International Assignment Management: Expatriate Policy and Procedure]

What to Consider

It's advisable to consult with an insurance broker or agent well-versed in international business issues, because it can be difficult to understand what type of insurance will provide the best service for employees at the best value for the employer.

Regardless of the particular solution, an employer should focus on:

  • Medical treatment. Insurers will have networks of providers available along with referral and translation services for the employee.
  • Payment. To expedite treatment, insurance programs can guarantee direct payment to foreign medical providers, with the employer reimbursing the insurer. There's also insurance that indemnifies the employer for medical expenses, often for a reasonable cost.
  • Transport. If the employee must be transported to a different country for treatment, the insurer should be able to make those arrangements. Make sure the insurer is providing sufficient coverage for these costs, as medical transportation can be expensive.
  • Family members. Insurance can cover the immediate family members who accompany a worker traveling abroad.

Teach Employees to Use the Plan

Employees should know how to access medical assistance before traveling. A company may have great insurance coverage, but that doesn't matter if an employee doesn't know how to access a referral service or a help line.

Take the time to educate employees about the company's business travel emergency plan:

  • Post information and instructions on intranet sites.
  • Periodically host brief meetings to explain the program.
  • Distribute wallet cards with insurance contact information for those traveling abroad.
  • Ask the company's travel agent to distribute this same information when employees book foreign travel.

If an emergency does happen, your employees will be grateful for that advance planning.

Erik Teegerstrom is senior vice president and property-casualty practice leader at USI Houston, an insurance brokerage and employee benefits consultancy.

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