Tourists hit with $25k bill after three-hour visit to a hospital in the US

Jul 12, 2018

A South Korean family has been hit with a massive bill following a quick and fairly uneventful visit to a hospital in the USA, prompting warnings to others travelling overseas.

The message is clear: Even if you have travel insurance, it might not be enough.

Jang Yeo-im told news site Vox that she and her husband were visiting San Francisco in 2016 with their baby son, Jeong-whan, when he fell off a bed and hit his head. The concerned parents called 911 and were taken in an ambulance to the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

After a quick check, the doctor declared Jeong-whan fine and gave the parents some formula to feed their baby before he took a nap. All told, they spent three hours and 22 minutes in the hospital.

Fast-forward two years and the bill finally arrived. The total amount due? A whopping US$18,836 (approx AU$25,400).

Checking the bill, it’s clear to see what caused this figure to be so high – a “trauma activation 911” fee, with the princely price tag of US$15,666 (approx AU$21,100).

Everyone knows that the cost of medical treatment in the U.S is notoriously high for anyone without health insurance, but it might come as a shock to tourists to discover that they can also rack up a huge bill even if they have insurance. And it only gets worse if a ‘trauma activation’ fee is applied.

So what is does this fee actually cover? According to Vox, it’s the price a trauma centre charges when it “activates and assembles a team of medical professionals that can meet a patient with potentially serious injuries in the ER”. It’s billed on top of a hospital’s usual charges, is extremely arbitrary and, as evidenced by this case, can sometimes appear very difficult to justify.

“If my baby got special treatment, okay. That would be okay,” said Jang Yeo-im. “But he didn’t. So why should I have to pay the bill? They did nothing for my son.”

Adding insult to (as it turns out, non-existent) injury, the family’s travel insurance provider announced that it would only cover US$5,000 (approx AU$6,740) of the total cost.

Jang Yeo-im’s story is far from an isolated incident, with travellers from all over the world regularly having to fork out big bucks for medical treatment when their insurance providers refuse to cover costs.

A case study by Smart Traveller tells of a man who injured his hip months before taking a cruise to Alaska. While on the cruise he had a fall and broke his hip, albeit in a different area to the original injury.

He was treated on the ship before being taken to a hospital on shore and ultimately transferred to LA for surgery. His entire medical treatment cost an eye-watering $120,000 – with evacuation costs adding an extra $70,000 to the bill.

As he had a pre-existing hip injury, the man’s insurer refused to pay any of the medical costs, and the man had to mortgage his house to pay the debt.

These shocking stories emphasise how vital it is to understand exactly how much coverage your travel insurance policy affords if you’re heading to the U.S.

Cheap insurance deals are always available, but a more expensive, truly comprehensive policy could end up saving you tens of thousands of dollars.

And while many travellers believe that insurance cover doesn’t start until the date of their departure, booking early actually covers you for any events that may affect your travel plans up to two months prior to your departure date. 

The old adage is true: “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. But making sure you get the right policy – and book it at the right time – is key to being properly covered and having peace of mind as you set off on your holiday.

Have you ever fallen ill or had an accident overseas? Did your insurance cover the medical costs or were you stuck with a bill?

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