Private health insurance: Choosing the right policy and health insurer for you

Private health insurance: Choosing the right policy and health insurer for you

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Everyone should have health insurance, but finding the right coverage can be time consuming. Here's a guide on how to choose the right health insurance for you.

Everyone should have health insurance, but finding the right coverage can be a painstaking task. Paul Wolf of Innovative Benefits Consultants guides you through the policies and the pitfalls.

Basic features of private insurance

Private health insurance policies generally offer one or two major levels of coverage: a comprehensive coverage, including in-hospital care and services as well as the services of doctors, lab tests, x-rays and other scans, etc. in a non-hospital setting; and a basic coverage which is limited to all care and services relating to an in-patient hospital stay only.

The common variables within these policies are various limits on reimbursement; a choice of deductibles; and any differences or limitations based on where the care is provided. But beyond this, there may be some traps waiting for you unless you look carefully at what is offered.

Applying for a policy

As the name suggests, it's easy to get coverage from guaranteed-issue policies - just answer a few easy questions and pay your premium. Beware though, when you submit a claim, you may be asked for proof that the problem you just treated wasn't a 'pre-existing condition' at the time you applied for the policy.

A pre-existing condition generally means a medical condition, which is currently being (or was previously) treated and any condition associated with it.

Just for clarification, 'treated' means:

  • Doctor's visits, tests, taking medication, or even a special diet for that condition within the past one year, two years, five years, or anytime in the past (each policy has its own time frame).

  • A condition which a 'prudent person' would have had treated, even if you didn't, or, in some policies, even if you didn't know about it but they feel you should have.

  • 'Any condition associated with it' means a medical problem that they deem to be an outgrowth or result of the original pre-existing condition. For example, a broken leg could be deemed to be the result of brittle bones caused by cancer treatments.

If the insurer decides it is a pre-existing condition, they may deny the claim. Always remember, the larger the claim the more carefully they're going to examine it. Which is not what you want to go through when you have just incurred a claim for USD 10,000.

Fully-underwritten policies ask very detailed health questions on the application form and may even ask for doctors' reports. Based on all the information they get, the insurance company may decide to:

  • Accept you with no exclusions or conditions;
  • Accept you with an increase the premium;
  • Accept you with an exclusion for a specific medical condition; or
  • Reject you.

It always makes good sense to disclose pre-existing conditions on your application form even if the application doesn't ask about them. Then, the insurance company will find it harder to deny a claim for a pre-existing condition if they didn't exclude it when they approved your application.

Your age

Some insurers automatically reduce benefits, charge extra premiums, or even discontinue your coverage when you reach a specific age. For example, at 60, 65, or 70, the maximum annual limit under the policy drops from USD1 million to USD100,000 or they may add 25 percent extra to the premium.

Possible policy exclusions

Some policies exclude travel if it's specifically to get medical care. Others exclude care if you travel "against the advice of a physician" or "while you are on a waiting list for treatment". In that case, treatment for that specific condition may not be covered while you're travelling.

Pregnancy and childbirth
Some policies exclude pregnancy and childbirth completely while others exclude them only for the first 12 months of the policy. Even if the pregnancy and birth are covered, some policies automatically exclude the first 15 days of a newborn's life - while others cover only the first 14 days of life.

In these cases, the baby must then apply as a separate person. Because many policies exclude birth defects, and congenital and hereditary illnesses, that baby may be refused coverage. Such policies may not be appropriate if you're in the childbearing years - take a long, hard look and ask questions before you sign up for such a policy.

Chronic illnesses
Some policies specifically exclude or limit the coverage of conditions which are, or become chronic, after you purchase the policy. An asthma attack (acute) may be covered but not ongoing asthma problems (chronic).

Limited Coverage
Some policies limit coverage for any single accident or illness to, for example, the first 12 months of treatment following the onset of that accident or illness.

Organ transplants
Some policies exclude such procedures, some offer it as an additional benefit, and some include it as a part of the regular coverage.

Where you are
Some policies place no limitations on where you can go for care while others limit the region of the world where they will cover you (and may charge different premiums based on the region(s) you select).

Home country
Some policies limit the time you can spend in your home country or even exclude it completely. For example, travel to and in the US may be limited to 30 or 60 days for US citizens or anyone born there regardless of their current citizenship or residency.

This could apply even if you go for a short visit and then, because of an illness or accident, need to stay longer. The policy may be cancelled or suspended when you reach that maximum time limit, regardless of your health condition at the time.

Getting insurance claims paid

Many policies now require you to get prior approval for a planned hospitalisation, with a penalty of reduced benefits if you don't. They may be more lenient with emergencies but still require notification as soon as possible after the emergency.

Some may also limit the choice of hospitals or doctors you can use. Even if you don't need pre-approval, informing an insurer before a hospitalisation is a good idea since they can usually pay the hospital directly for your stay.

Non-hospital bills
In most cases, you must pay physicians, labs, etc out of pocket and then submit those bills with proof of payment.

Submitting claims
Some policies require a completed claim form – others, just the original bill. In almost all cases, you should get the bill in English or supply an English translation – it tends to smooth the path to reimbursement.

Emergency help

Almost all policies offer the services of an International Help Centre, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Centre can refer you to an English-speaking doctor and/or hospital and/or assist in the event of an emergency requiring medical evacuation. This is obviously more useful when you're in a non English-speaking area, but you can use it wherever you are in the world.

Medical evacuation

This is a useful feature if you're in a country/region with a healthcare system which is below par. But, be aware that no policy offers evacuation just because you would prefer it. If the emergency can't be treated locally, you will be evacuated to the nearest major facility capable of providing a decent standard of care.

The definition of 'nearest' and 'decent' are decided jointly by the Emergency Help Center and the insurance company.

Paying premiums

Premiums are normally payable for each person in a family, although some policies do offer a family premium. Others offer free coverage to pre-teen dependent children if one parent is covered. Premiums may vary based on where you live or where you want to have treatment, and may increase with attained age.

Payment is usually by cheque or credit card and may offer a choice of currencies for premiums and reimbursements.

Renewing coverage

Guaranteed renewability of an insurance policy is fundamental to the selection of that policy. If there is no guarantee to renew coverage regardless of your health condition at the renewal date, beware. Cancellation of coverage is not what you need if you have developed a medical condition which would be deemed pre-existing if you have to apply for another policy.

Making the decision

Finding providers may be easy, but with little difference between the options of the various providers, how do you make the final choice?

"Many of our clients are aware from their own research, that there are more insurers than ever competing against each other. Therefore they come to us for advice and guidance," says Andrew Wilson, CEO of April Medibroker (, an independent specialist broker advising expatriates on international medical or healthcare insurance.

"Expats should seek the advice of an independent broker, who is not tied to one provider and who has access to a large number of insurers, before signing up to any plan," continues Wilson.

There are many things to consider when choosing a provider, and perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of medical insurance in the last 10 years is pre-existing medical conditions. In the past, pre-existing medical conditions have been excluded from cover, along with all related conditions.

Choosing the right area of cover is another important task. Generally with international plans there are three areas of cover – Europe, Worldwide (exc USA and Canada) and Worldwide. It is not just the country they are going to be living in that the expatriate needs to think about. What if they were to get a condition such as cancer?

Would they want to stay in unfamiliar territory, or would they want to return home to be treated, with loved ones and friends. Also what if the medical facilities in their new country leave a lot to be desired? They would need to make sure evacuation was included within a plan to get them to the nearest centre of excellence.

Many expats are now considering local plans in today's economic climate. However, a local plan means exactly that. Local care, in a local language and usually restricted to a handful of hospitals where medical facilities may not be adequate. Again, the expat needs to think about where they would like treatment for the more serious conditions.

So, is a major player always the best bet?

Not always according to Wilson who observes that smaller companies can be much better in their administration, and customer service. They also have the ability to treat each customer as an individual rather than a number. As they are smaller, they can be quicker to pro-actively respond to the changing needs within the market place.

That said, larger companies can be more widely recognised by medical institutes in some remote places. Other companies will allow claims by email, when others need claim forms.

"There really is a lot to consider," adds Wilson.  "In the 12 years experience we have gained, things are changing more than ever, and more quickly than ever before in the insurance market. That's when the expert advice and guidance of an experienced broker becomes vital."

Paul Wolf and Cormac Mac Ruairi / Expatica
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8 Comments To This Article

  • Adi posted:

    on 22nd February 2016, 16:56:02 - Reply

    The German Health insurance is not admitting people like me, who doesn't belong to the European union.

    When it comes to the German rules, yyou might get stuck in a bureaucracy loop - no visa without insurance and no insurance without a visa. Regarding to the working visa I met a very nice insurance agent in Berlin. 

  • plt posted:

    on 10th June 2014, 08:52:15 - Reply

    I checked online with Bupa about a policy for Spain as a link is mentioned in your artcile and their website quotes GBP 513.00 a month!!! They must be joking . . .
  • kate posted:

    on 2nd June 2014, 18:18:04 - Reply

    Wow, this article really scared me - I was looking for information about getting health insurance in the Netherlands if you have a pre-existing condition. This article states that it will be difficult and expensive. After looking at other sources, including the Dutch government website, I see that it is illegal for Dutch insurance companies to refuse you, or to charge you more based on your age/sex/current health status etc. They have sophisticated mechanisms in place which ensure that the insurers are not financially penalised by having people with pre-existing conditions on their books.

    I would suggest that you update this article with the correct information as it is very misleading.
  • Jill Mason posted:

    on 23rd October 2013, 09:43:19 - Reply

    I have had several issues with Care Concepts AG, my insurance supposedly expired yet no one informed me of this and I continued to pay for it. Of course none of the medical bills that I have incurred for myself or my child will be paid as they were all after the date that our insurance was expired. This just seems wrong!
  • peter posted:

    on 1st February 2012, 13:13:53 - Reply

    I had endless difficulties finding a dentist that had integrity and was honest and polite. I also had overwhelming complications to get insurance companies to honor their policies, most will screw around with you to discourage you from making claims. Eventually I figured the cost of premiums the dishonesty of insurance companies the collusion with the dentist = frustration costs dissatisfaction bad work. It actually works out cheaper and more rewarding to arrange a dentist abroad. I have an excellent dentist in Slovenia. Never had I had such good service and friendly and polite people. Twice a year I fly to Slovenia, with Ryanair, off season I find return flights for less then 50€. I stay in a pleasant inexpensive B
  • Annick posted:

    on 25th January 2012, 11:52:07 - Reply

    Another interesting fact about Belgium---having been insured in another EU country-even with proof of care being paid for-does NOT count as being adequately insured previously. Hence - a reason for my BE hosp insurance company to not reimburse my hospital stay and surgery here. Or any that are needed in the future. Any advice on which EU parliamentarian to approach and make sure a new EU law will be made re insurance acceptance between EU countries?

    Be aware when suffering from a pre-existing condition-that even if previously insured and having had adequate treatment and insurance, which is usually a reason to accept that-is not necessarily sufficient.

    Do not fall ill in Belgium is my device
  • Blucas posted:

    on 23rd January 2012, 17:26:25 - Reply

    Likewise for France. I opened this article expecting to read something relating to top up insurance in France and found that it has nothing to do with it. Who exactly is this article aimed at?
  • Sebastian posted:

    on 18th January 2012, 14:07:04 - Reply

    I accessed this comment via the Netherlands section of Expatica, but many things from this article don't apply to The Netherlands.