Travel insurance for the chronically ill

I, like many people who live with chronic or invisible illness, enjoy travelling. Since my diagnosis we’ve kept our travel fairly local choosing destinations like Fiji and New Zealand (which has reciprocal health care with Australia). We’ve done this because my illness has been unpredictable and also because we haven’t had the cash stream to do a big holiday. Buying the house and my diagnose and subsequent treatment took a huge toll on us financially. We’ve been playing it pretty cool – making sure we can meet all our financial commitments here before we skip the country.

At the start of the year – we decided that with my condition such as it is (as in it can change quickly and without warning) we were going to start doing some of the trips we’ve always talked about… the trips of a lifetime that some people only dream of… we were going to do them. 

This first trip was a big decision… where should we go? I’m not sure why we chose the way we did, but our first long haul since my diagnosis became Canada – and we’re traveling there with Stocker’s sister. 

We booked the flights back in February at a travel show and it felt like forever away… as I write this we are just 86 days away from leaving and I am bursting with excitement.

Sunday and Monday this week made me second guess if we’d actually get there. On Sunday after a very pleasant fathers day afternoon with Stockers family at our house we decided to complete our US visa – it’s an online thing for Australians, it takes about 5 minutes and costs $14USD. It made me wonder though – does Canada have a similar scheme? After some googling, it turns out they do… so we applied for that as well.  Everything was going so swimmingly until I got to the last question on the document: “Do you have a serious health condition that you seek regular treatment for?”. Of course, to that question I have to answer “yes” – a bunch more questions dropped down from that… one of them being “Do you hold or intended to take out heath insurance for your trip?”. Naturally I answered yes to that – I’d applied and paid for travel insurance with Australia Post Insurance back in July – just in case. 

My visa was not granted immediately like Stockers – my heart sank… could my visa be knocked back because of my Crohns? I’d never been asked this question before when entering another country – I just declared my medication and off I went.

I was sombre over night and the next morning. At lunch time I decided to get my insurance paperwork in order so I could prove to the authorities that I would not be a toll on their health care system… I started reading my medical indemnity and a lump formed in my throat. One of the questions was recored wrong on the sheets. 

“Have you EVER had abdominal surgery?” 

Of course my answer to that is “yes”, but it was recorded as “no” – and I had this clear memory of the question being “Have you had abdominal surgery in the last 12 months”. Clearly this was a mistake, either they recorded my answer wrong or the question was phrased wrongly on the document. 

I called, waited on hold for almost 10 minutes because I stupidly didn’t hit the button that took me to the incoming sales team then very nicely explained the problem to the operator. She informed me that the question was definitely “Have you EVER had abdominal surgery?” so I said “my reply must have been recorded incorrectly because you have the hospitalisation for that surgery noted correctly in the third question”. When she overrode that field in my indemnity, the policy we held was rejected.

I thought I was going to throw up.

I asked the operator to pull the tape of my policy and get back to me – I was adamant that a mistake had been made.

An hour later the original operator who took the policy called me back, said the tape had been listened to and that I was indeed in the wrong and that my money would not be returned and my policy would not cover my illness. 

No, not me. I would not have made that mistake. Not about my health. My condition and my health is why I seek out premium travel insurance. I asked to speak to the manager who listened to the tape.

2 hours elapse. I’m still feelings nauseous at the thought of the visa for my $15,000 holiday that I’d been waiting 5 years for being rejected because I’m chronically ill and an error was made on my travel insurance. 

I’ve worked in Customer Service with argumentative customers – I know all the ploys… the putting them on hold… the making them wait for calls back… the putting them onto someone else in hopes that will calm them down… Knowing what was going on I decided to take the bull by the horns and call them back….

I was put straight through to the staff member that allegedly listened to my call. He was aggressive, spoke over me and basically told me I was lying about my initial call and about my condition. I don’t know how trained these people are at dealing with chronically ill people but even the intimation that we lie about what’s going on with us is extremely offensive. I kept saying “that’s what happened” to which he kept replying “I’ve listened to the tape, you clearly answer the question “no” to which I reply once more “then that’s not the question I was asked – I’m sure the question was ‘in the last 12 months'”… he wouldn’t budge. He belittled me. Thought it was funny even. I started yelling to be able to speak over him speaking over me… “I want a refund, you’ve broken your contract with me, I want a refund and I want a copy of the tape because that’s NOT what happened”. He said – and this is a direct quote “you made the error Amanda, I’ve heard it myself, you’re not entitled to a refund, but as an act of good faith I will see what I can do”. I ended the call demanding it was resolved that day. 

I was distressed. My heart was beating so hard and fast I thought I was going to pass out there on the spot… I managed to compose myself and go back to my desk… all I could really do was muddle around with my 30 current projects rather than picking a direction and going getting something done… 

My phone rang again, another barrage of abuse telling me what a liar I am no doubt. I steeled myself and answered the phone. The same manager was on the other end, I’m pretty sure my groan was audible. “Good news Amanda we’re processing your refund now” I must admit I was relieved but I was also confused – I’d just been told for the 40 minutes prior that I wasn’t entitled to one and that I was a liar…. He went on to tell me that after listening to the tape again, he ‘realised’ that the first question I was asked was phrased in the following way “have you had abdominal surgery since you took out your last policy with us”, my last policy was about 12 months prior when we went to New Zealand – the correct response to that was “no”. My surgery was in December 2013 which I state later in the tape, several times…. 

It was a moment of such mixed feelings. I was relieved we weren’t out of pocket, concerned about who would insure me now and so angry with the way I’d been treated I was ready to pop a capillary. The person I was talking to continued to be dishonest and talk over me, telling me that he never even indicated that I’d lied… which he had. The rest of the call was a bit of a blur. I was so angry I don’t remember what went on… 

Straight after work we needed to rush to get my stitches out… we arrived and my doctor was running about an hour late – so I started to call other travel insurers suggested by the CCA. Covermore, NIB, HCF… in total I called 5 insurers – each rejected my policy when I disclosed my surgery. I was standing outside the surgery sobbing because of the mess I was now in… when I decided to call the insurer that held our home insurance to see if we had international drop cover on our policy. The lady could hear how upset I was and asked me what was wrong – I explained. She urged me to go through to their Travel Insurance department… I didn’t think I could again. I told her I was just going to get rejected and I don’t thing I could deal with another call like that right now.  She pressed and I relented and started preparing myself.

The operator from the Travel Insurance department could tell instantly I was upset and when she asked me what happened I burst into rivers of tears again. She was horrified that I was so distressed.  I finally got my name out and said “I really don’t want to waste your time…. I’m trying to get travel insurance for the US and Canada in December – but I had abdominal surgery relating to Crohn’s Disease in December of 2013″… there was silence… I was ready for what she was about to say next…


“I’m sorry – what?”

“We don’t care if you were a double amputee two years go, the only thing that might be an issue is immunosuppressants, if you’re on them?”

Of course I am – but that conversation was the longest most positive I’ve had in about 2 hours.

I explained my situation and it turns out that Suncorp Travel Insurance (which is underwritten by Vero) doesn’t have those 3 stupid indemnity questions that I’d been answering all afternoon. They do indemnity via forms which need to be signed by a doctor. We were waiting at the surgery… good timing.

We had the forms printed out, our GP signed off and we emailed in the next day.  

I was still concerned over the immunosuppression (they prefer you to call it “modulation” now days but if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck) but it was in their hands now. In the meantime I received my “notice of refund” from Australia Post. I was upset over what had happened but I had so much on my plate I was just going to let it go… the last line of the email read “Please read our terms and conditions carefully as you cancellation was outside of the cooling off period so technically no refund was due – this was an act of good faith on our part”. I saw red… worse than red… purple and black. HOW DARE THEY?!?! They screw me around… the insure me under false pretences, mess up my indemnity questions, call me a liar, humiliate me and then write THAT email when they were 100% at fault? I’m not the calmest soul in the world so I got back on the phone and let them have it… I did receive a written apology and I’m undecided on if I have the time or energy to take it further.

I called Suncorp/Vero the next day to make sure they received everything and our insurance had been fully approved 7 minutes prior to my call. No additional excess, no limit on medical treatment – no terms and conditions. 

I probably left out the best part – the insurance as actually $150 cheaper than Australia Post.

I hung up the phone and went to check for the policy documents and there was my approved Canadian Visa too. 

This year I found the hunt for Travel Insurance both confronting and confusing. The abdominal surgery that had me ineligible for most policies actually made be less of a risk then I was before. Sure I’m still having some little hiccups but I’m not in imminent danger of pegging it – or we wouldn’t have even considered the long haul.

All’s well that ends well, right? Yeah, sure, I’m glad that it’s all cleared up. I am still angry about the Australia Post thing though. I NEVER lie about my health. I take it seriously – every day and for the rest of my life.  Being called a liar – when clearly I was spot on with all my answers and I stated 3 times I’d had surgery in December 2013 was disgusting – and I deserved much more than an apology and a bunch of flowers.

Yes I’m sick – so instantly that means you need to deliver me more stress and upset? Having Crohn’s disease (or any other chronic illness) isn’t a crime, yet people take pleasure in making us feel like criminals. Over stupid things like travel insurance and flu tablets and even buying more than two boxes of Paracetamol. If we want to tackle things like racial and religious equality – we have no hope if we can’t do something simple like see a person when a chronic condition as at least an equal. We’re not victims or criminals or anything in between – we’re just sick. We deal with the worst of it – why can’t you even cope with the idea of it?

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