Without travel insurance, 'egregious billing' common for emergency care in tourist spots

INDIANAPOLIS -- At least twice in the past year, vacationing Hoosiers have been held virtual hostages following emergency medical care at Cancun hospitals.

Last August, Dixie Stinson was on a family trip to Cancun when she had a heart attack and needed emergency surgery to clear several blockages in an artery.

Unfortunately the first surgery didn’t do it. Doctors told her she would need a second procedure – and also that they wouldn’t perform it until the family paid them $30,000 on the spot.

The hospital also wouldn’t release Stinson until her balance was paid. Her family told RTV6 they felt like Stinson was trapped.

FULL STORY | Hoosier grandma released from Cancun hospital with $107,000 bill

This week, a Martinsville couple said they were forced to pay a Cancun hospital $30,000 after doctors performed an emergency C-section. They told RTV6 the hospital charged them every time they saw their child, Beckham, who was born 28 weeks early, and also charged them to leave the building.

The couple eventually arranged for an air ambulance to transport Baby Beckham back to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis so he could receive the necessary medical care for a premature baby.

FULL STORY | Martinsville couple forced to pay $30K to bring home premature baby from Mexico

In both cases, the families didn’t have travel insurance covering medical expenses. It’s possible that if they had, as little as $150 up front could have saved them tens of thousands of dollars and immeasurable anxiety, according to travel insurance provider International Medical Group (IMG).

“When facing a medical bill of over $30,000, even a top-of-the-line policy at $250 would be a nominal expense,” said Emily Study, IMG’s communications manager.

Travel insurance likely would have covered the trip interruption and the medical evacuation, Study said, as well as a large part of the medical expenses.

At IMG, Study says agents hear horror stories like Stinson’s and Baby Beckham’s all the time.

"It's not uncommon," she said. "We have seen similar instances in which healthcare providers in other countries make these demands, virtually holding patients hostage We experienced one situation in which a medical provider demanded the title to one of our member’s homes.” 

Medical traveler’s insurance, according to Stinson, provides a bulwark against not just enormous unexpected medical expenses, but also attempts to take advantage of foreign travelers in a crisis.

“We do see in these tourist locations just egregious billing, and part of having that relationship with your insurance provider is the medical bill review and having a second set of eyes on that claim,” Study said.

Price-gouging for medical billing isn’t limited to Cancun hospitals, though. Study said popular tourist locations like Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Montego Bay and Punta Cana are all known to inflate costs for medical services to tourists.

“It’s not only in Latin America – you can find the same thing in the Middle East, China and other areas,” she said. “U.S. hospitals are opening or co-opening branches with local partners in China, Dubai, Hong Kong and elsewhere. They open their doors with U.S. health care costs because it’s an ‘American’ clinic.”

But even though they’re “American” clinics, American insurance, including Medicare, often isn’t valid.

Study said people are reluctant to pay for travel insurance after they’ve finished paying for the trip and the transportation costs – but that it’s a relatively small expense compared to an uninsured medical emergency.

“We see these cases all the time where it was the one thing that a traveler forgot or neglected to purchase, and it could have really kicked in and provided what they needed at a time of crisis,” Study said. “These emergencies can’t be avoided, but the ensuing chaos can be mitigated by the travel insurance policy.”

For more information about costs, International Medical Group offers a free travel insurance quote tool online here.

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