Over the weekend, NPR ran a story entitled “Don’t Count on Travel Insurance to Cover Mental Health.” The article told the story of a couple whose travel plans needed to be changed, based on recommendations by their adult son’s doctors that he not be left alone as he began a new treatment regimen for mental health problems. When the would-be travelers submitted a claim for trip cancellation to their travel insurance company, it was denied, on the basis that their choice to remain at home with their son was done under speculation of possible health problems — not a concrete illness or injury. It’s a heart-wrenching story; who among us can’t identify on some level with parents who put their son’s well-being at the top of the priority list? But does this family’s story really mean that travel insurance will never cover mental health issues?
We reached out to our providers to get their take on the question, and found some surprising answers:
1. Travel insurance may cover mental health in the event of hospitalization.
According to our experts, some travel insurance providers treat hospitalization for mental health reasons similarly to hospitalization for any other medical problem. If a traveler who’s insured by one of those companies has to cancel his plans because he, or a traveling companion, is hospitalized for mental health care, the same trip cancellation benefits would apply as if he had been in an accident or needed surgery. More importantly for the context of the NPR story, these benefits do extend to anyone who’s not traveling, but meets the definition of “family member” on the insurance policy; in this case, the couple’s son would qualify as immediate family. Had he been placed into in-patient care for the change in his treatment protocol, their travel insurance benefits would likely have covered them for canceling their trip. However, this type of coverage for mental health is not provided by all travel insurers, so it’s vital that you ask questions and carefully read the terms of any policy you purchase to be sure you have what you need.
2. Pre-Existing Conditions Waivers may apply to mental health.
If either of the parents in the NPR story had themselves been under treatment for mental health problems, they may have benefited from buying travel insurance with a Pre-Existing Conditions Waiver. With that type of coverage in place, if they had needed to cancel their plans based on medical recommendations, the travel insurance company would not be able to look into their prior medical records to determine whether or not the condition preventing them from traveling was related to any pre-existing condition. However, in the case of their son, our experts found that some companies would consider a pre-existing conditions waiver unnecessary; as long as he wasn’t planning to travel with his parents, his medical history may not be called into question. The way each individual insurance company handles this scenario may differ, so if pre-existing conditions are a concern for you or an immediate family member, it’s a good idea to find out in advance what the requirements are. Also, bear in mind that the waiver is a time-sensitive benefit, so it’s necessary to purchase your insurance within 10-30 days of making your initial trip payment if you want this type of coverage.
3. Cancel for Any Reason is a smart option for those concerned with mental health.
The crux of the NPR story really comes down to this: The doctors in charge of the son’s care made a recommendation based on the possibility that his condition would deteriorate. Because it was a possibility, not an actual documented event, the travel insurance company denied the claim. Their view, essentially, was that insurance claims cover you for unforeseen problems that have happened, not possibly foreseen problems that haven’t materialized yet.
If you put yourself in the parents’ shoes, that explanation probably doesn’t make things any better; you may still feel that something more could have been done for this family. Our experts recommend that in the future, a Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) policy may be a better option for those who might find themselves in a similar situation. Because CFAR allows you to cancel your plans for reasons that aren’t listed on your insurance documents — truly, it’s cancel for “any” reason — it would have provided the flexibility for this particular family to cancel their plans and still recover a large portion of their pre-paid, non-refundable expenses. When using CFAR, it’s important to remember that the cancellation must be made, and all travel suppliers (including the insurance company) notified, at least 48 hours before your scheduled departure. Also, as with the Pre-Existing Conditions Waiver, CFAR is a time-sensitive benefit, so be sure to purchase your insurance within 10-30 days of making the first payment on your trip to be eligible for the coverage you need.
Can you trust travel insurance to cover mental health issues? Yes, you can. As with all types of insurance coverage, the way benefits apply in individual situations may vary, but the options are out there. Travel insurance companies, by and large, treat serious mental health problems the same way they treat serious problems of physical health. It’s just important, as always, to carefully research the options before purchasing, so you can be sure to get the coverage that’s best for you.