Politics

Canadian snowbirds told to come home as some insurers warn medical insurance will be restricted

Canadian snowbirds are being advised to return home as the COVID-19 pandemic advances in the U.S. — and access to out-of-country medical insurance comes to an end for some travellers.

Johnson, Medoc have given policyholders until March 23 to come home or risk losing emergency medical insurance

Canadian snowbirds are being warned that, in many cases, their COVID-19 travel insurance coverage is coming to an end. (Marsha Halper/The Miami Herald/Associated Press)

Canadian snowbirds are being advised to return home as the COVID-19 pandemic advances in the U.S. — and access to out-of-country medical insurance comes to an end for some travellers.

Speaking to reporters from self-isolation Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a plea to all Canadians abroad: come home now or risk being stranded as countries close their borders and limit flights.

The Canadian Snowbirds Association says it's advising all of its members to heed the PM's advice and head for home.

The advocacy group, which represents tens of thousands of Canadians who winter in warmer climes, has told members to leave their residences in places like Florida and Arizona because insurance options will become increasingly limited in the days ahead as some providers move to cancel or restrict policies — including policies that were signed well before COVID-19 spread to parts of Canada and the U.S.

"Other than perhaps a medical emergency or some extenuating circumstances, we believe our membership should return home as soon as possible," said Evan Rachkovsky, director of research with the Canadian Snowbirds Association.

'We are concerned'

"We are concerned," Rachkovsky said when asked about some insurers cutting people off. "We are telling people to contact their travel insurance provider."

Rachkovsky said many snowbirds are "unsettled" because they are dealing with a very fluid situation that has changed dramatically in the last 72 hours. "We're doing our best to supply our members with updates as soon as they're available," he said.

The organization is expecting an uptick in traffic at border crossings as "hundreds of thousands" of snowbirds head for home at roughly the same time.

A number of medical insurance providers have advised clients that their coverage will end 10 days after Ottawa issued the advisory warning against all non-essential travel outside of Canada.

That means many medical insurance plans will stop covering treatment and procedures for snowbirds on Monday, March 23.

Some insurers — like Johnson Insurance, which offers the popular Medoc product — have said Canadians have 10 days, or "a period that is reasonably necessary," to either get home or risk travelling without access to insured medical care.

CBC News spoke to a Gatineau, Que. couple Monday who spend part of the year in Fort Myers, Fla. and have a Medoc plan. They said they only noticed the policy would be limited after a friend sent them a screen image of a policy posted on the company's website. The company did not proactively tell them that their coverage could be curtailed.

'Undue pressure'

Kimberly (who said she did not want her last name used for fear of being penalized by Medoc for speaking publicly), said she spoke to an insurance adviser on Monday who said she and her husband should leave the U.S. now because time is running out on their out-of-country coverage.

"We were going to go back to Canada anyway, with all of this going on, but the problem is Medoc has taken away any choice to do it in a manner that we feel is best for us, safe for us," Kimberly said.

"We understand timing is of the essence but now they've just put an extra pressure, undue pressure and stress on us and have taken away any choice," she said. "The public needs to know what these insurance companies are doing to their clients and just be wary."

The Retired Teachers of Ontario also has advised its policyholders to return to Canada as soon as possible. Their insurance product is also backed by Johnson Insurance.

"Members now outside Canada will continue to have coverage for the period of time that is reasonably required to safely return to Canada. For most members, we expect safe return can take place within 10 days of the March 13 advisory," the group said on its website.

"For those in regions or countries with restrictions on movement or travel (e.g. Spain, Italy), coverage will continue until the restrictions are lifted and you can safely return to Canada."

'I can't say I blame them'

Deb Corbeil, a travel blogger, flew from Ontario to Florida to help drive her parents home this past weekend. She spoke to CBC News Sunday. Her mother, who has a pre-existing lung condition, was anxious, as few Americans in her area were practicing social distancing.

"If you have the means to get home, I would. I'm glad I got my parents home. And now if they are sick, we are not worried about insurance, we are not worried about travel warnings. They are back in the safety and comfort of their own home where they can self-quarantine in peace and quiet," she said.

Corbeil said she's not surprised that insurance companies are limiting coverage after Ottawa issued a travel advisory against all non-essential travel outside of Canada.

"I can't say I blame them. If I actively chose to stay out of the country after knowing it's not safe where I am, I'm taking a risk," she said. "To me, it's common sense. When a warning is in effect, I get out when I can."

Most travellers who left the country after the travel advisory was issued on March 13 will not have access to out-of-country medical coverage, as they knowingly travelled despite the government's guidance. Apart from Johnson, RBC Insurance and Green Shield Canada have said policies could be null and void for people who left after the travel restrictions were announced Friday.

"In light of the latest Government of Canada advisory, GSC will not cover any emergency travel expenses related to the coronavirus (COVID-19), whether incurred on a cruise or any other type of travel," Green Shield Canada advised its policyholders in a statement on social media.

"While medical claims specific to the coronavirus would not be covered while travelling, unrelated incidents (e.g. a fall, accident, heart attack) would still be considered, subject to the terms of your plan," the company said.

'Unique circumstances'

Allianz Global Assistance offers travel medical insurance to members of the Alberta Retired Teachers' Association (ARTA).

In a statement to CBC, a spokesperson for Allianz said policyholders should return to Canada as soon as possible, but added it has relaxed some of its timelines to allow for flexibility.

The policy normally demands members return home within 10 days of a travel advisory being issued to avoid losing coverage for treatment, but the company is extending that deadline.

"Given the very unique circumstances of the current government advisories, we have redefined the period for these members to return home. The extension is granted to April 5, 2020, or the end date of their current coverage period, whichever is earliest," said Don Keon, a spokesperson for Allianz.

"With this extension provided, we are still encouraging members to adhere to the Canadian government's recommendation that all Canadians travelling abroad come back to Canada immediately, and plan their return accordingly."

Some insurers — including Medipac, a company endorsed by the Canadian Snowbirds Association — have said they will be more lenient with policyholders and will give Canadians the time they need to get home safely.

"At this time, they are not implementing a 10-day requirement to return home," Rachkovsky said of Medipac.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Stephen Hoff

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