Insurance Considerations for Exchange Participants with Disabilities
Learn questions to investigate and what to consider as it relates to travel and health insurance, disability issues and people with pre-existing conditions.
In This Tipsheet:
- Overview of Health, Insurance and Disability
- Frequently Asked Questions
- What Education Abroad and International Student Advisors Can Do!
Many international exchange program providers offer travel insurance coverage for emergencies such as lost luggage, evacuation and repatriation (returns of body remains in the event of death), as well as health insurance for medical treatment in the event of an accident or illness as part of the program fee paid by participants. This insurance is typically offered as supplementary coverage for someone already covered by another medical insurance plan, but in some cases may be the only health insurance a participant uses while abroad. Travel and health insurance are generally bundled together for complete coverage while traveling outside the home country.
This tipsheet will assist people with disabilities traveling outside their countries:
- Know what options exist or how to plan for health coverage while on an exchange program if they have pre-existing conditions or need ongoing medications and treatment while abroad,
- Be proactive about having timely coverage in case of unexpected changes in a condition, failure of durable medical equipment such as wheelchairs or hearing aids, or diagnosis of catastrophic illness such as cancer while on international exchange programs.
Most people with disabilities are not unhealthy or sick. By U.S. law, people with disabilities are eligible for coverage under traditional group insurance policies. Though traditional medical insurance coverage will be sufficient for many people with disabilities, some may request or need alternative options due to limitations on coverage if traveling abroad. If a person is not covered under a group plan, they may look for an individual (or voluntary) insurance health plan.
Plans offered to international or exchange students for less than a year coverage are not fully licensed products so new changes to U.S. health laws through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) do not apply. These plans can increase costs, have pre-existing condition exclusions or deny enrollment based on health status. For example, read more in this Epilepsy Travel Insurance article.
If an institution or agency offers health insurance coverage for exchange participants and/or international students, there are a number of items to consider regarding coverage for people with disabilities.
- Pre-existing conditions are an important
consideration in insurance coverage for some people with and without
disabilities. Pay attention to the time period that defines a
pre-existing condition and any exclusion waiting period or general
exclusion. It is equally important to look at language for treatment
for unforeseen changes, unexpected reoccurrence or aggravation in a
condition. These are explained more thoroughly below.
- Access to an individual’s medical records and personal physician in an emergency may be important for participants with health-related concerns, such as epilepsy, diabetes and others.
- National or state health plans, such as Medicaid in the United States, may not remain in effect while traveling overseas or provide enough coverage in a different country. People in the U.S. can understand more at: Medicaid and Medicare Coverage While Overseas. Certain
services, such as personal attendant care, physical therapy or wheelchair repair, are
unlikely to be covered under a supplemental travel health insurance plan.
The most effective way to eliminate problematic situations of lack of coverage overseas is to find an exchange program with group plan options that cover pre-existing conditions, or try to find an individual health care plan that is portable overseas. For international students in the U.S., there are now more options as they qualify to purchase insurance that offers the ACA-regulated protections, such as non-discrimination for pre-existing conditions.
- What defines a pre-existing condition and its coverage in an organizational or institutional group health insurance plan?
- What if an international exchange organization or institution opts to allow or require exchange participants to purchase their own travel health insurance?
- Does the insurance company offer an assistance service with a 24-hour, worldwide toll free telephone number for emergencies?
- What health insurance options are available for students enrolling directly into a host university?
- What if you use a personal assistant or durable medical equipment (e.g. wheelchair, etc.) or need prescription medications or assistance with a major medical costs?
- Can a medical office in the host country access an individual’s medical information and communicate with his/her physician if needed?
1. What defines a pre-existing condition and its coverage in a short-term duration travel health insurance plan?
Generally, a pre-existing condition is any medical condition, injury or illness that occurred and a licensed physician was consulted or treatment of medication was prescribed, prior to the start date of the insurance policy. The length of time before the start date during which a condition would be considered pre-existing varies, and can be anywhere from 30 days to 6 months or longer.
A pre-existing condition exclusion waiting period is the length of time after the start date of an insurance policy that a person must wait before any pre-existing conditions are covered. The waiting period is often longer for individually purchased policies.
If organizations and institutions negotiate it, most "short-term duration" accident and sickness group policies have the option to:
- Remove exclusions for pre-existing conditions,
- Reduce the time period defining pre-existing conditions,
- Offer limited coverage to a certain maximum dollar amount for pre-existing conditions or medications,
- Specify coverage in the case of an emergency to stabilize a pre-existing condition, or
- Exclude from the definition of a pre-existing condition, any condition in which one takes a prescribed drug or medicine that remains controlled without any change in a required prescription prior to the start of coverage.
Sometimes a policy that does not explicitly exclude pre-existing conditions or the condition for which treatment is sought such as depression, will instead include language about coverage for “unexpected” reoccurrence or aggravation of a condition. Examples of unforeseen changes that are disability-related conditions might include a need for counseling, or treatment of a bladder infection, blood clot, asthmatic attack, pressure sore or adverse reaction to a medication.
In order to receive coverage, a case would need to be made for why the change was unexpected. The existence of a disability would need to be clearly distinguished from the cause of an illness or injury abroad that is related to the environment (climate, activity, food, etc.) or from difficulty accessing care abroad in exasperating (i.e. making worse) the condition. If coverage was denied, consider strategies for appealing a health plan decision from the PACER Center.
2. What if an international exchange organization or institution opts to allow or require exchange participants to purchase their own travel health insurance?
If insurance is available through the study program or host institution, participants electing to purchase their own insurance will be required to provide evidence of a “mandatory plan with hard waiver,” meaning that the personal insurance coverage must be equal to or greater than that provided by the organization.
- Medicaid recipients may be dropped from enrollment in the medical plans if they do not keep a U.S. state residence or address or lose their SSI eligibility
by being out of the country for more than 30 days for anything other
than studying abroad for credit through a U.S.-based educational
program for up to a year. Read our tipsheet, Social Security or Vocational Rehabilitation and Going Abroad, for more information.
- Loss of enrollment creates a gap of coverage
on return home from being abroad, especially if the travel health
insurance does not cover participants in their home country.
- Individuals who are entitled to Medicare and leave the United States are still entitled to Medicare coverage. The issue is that Medicare will not make payment for services rendered or supplies sent outside the United States (the "United States" means the 50 States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and, for purposes of services rendered on a ship, includes the territorial waters adjoining the land areas of the United States).
- If you are an American on Medicare, instead of getting separate international coverage you may want to purchase a Medicare supplement plan (C through J) from a local agent. This supplement will cover you for the first 60 days of a trip outside of the USA. There is a $250 deductible. Then the insurance will cover 80 percent of all billed charges up to a lifetime maximum of $50,000. The premium will be between $100 and $150 depending on your age. This "Foreign Travel Emergency" benefit is just one of the benefits in the supplement package. If you already have a Medicare supplement, you may only need to add $9.00 for overseas coverage. Check for updated information.
(information from: http://www.gninsurance.com/special5.asp)
As part of getting ready to travel, exchange participants who this affects should contact the Social Security Administration and the Medicaid/Medicare office for more information.
Websites Overseas Health Insurance offer comparisons of various individual travel insurance options. Their information shows what plans cover pre-existing conditions and how much they cover. This information reveals that more expensive plans will cover pre-existing conditions if purchased in advance and a person can show they are “medically able” or “not disabled from travel” at the time of purchase. General exclusions will still apply; some conditions such as mental health, may be separately excluded.and and
Many individuals with ongoing health-related conditions may find that they are denied enrollment in individual insurance plans as they are supplemental and often are not required to follow regulations for fully-licensed products.
Many people maintain their existing insurance - if it covers overseas - as their primary insurance when abroad. Medicaid and state-health plans often do not cover overseas costs or offer what international travel health insurance policies provide such as:
- Profiles of over English-speaking physicians in countries worldwide
- Translations of thousands of medical terms and hundreds of brand name drugs
- Information on the legality of taking in or acquiring controlled medications overseas
- Referrals to hospitals, clinics and pharmacies in worldwide destinations
- Health and security email alerts customized by destination.
In addition to accident and sickness supplemental plans, many international insurance companies offer major travel health plans that are designed for people working or living overseas (often for over a year) may have more pre-existing condition coverage in their plans for Americans (e.g. HTH Worldwide Global Citizen or MedEx TravMed Choice plans), although these same plans often require a pre-existing condition waiting period for international citizens coming to the United States. The websites above list these types of plans too.
For international visitors coming to the U.S., who are lawfully present in the United States, they can access the Individual Health Insurance Marketplace that has Affordable Care Act (ACA) regulated plans and patient protections that come with this, such as non-discrimination for pre-existing conditions. Also university student health plans must comply with the provisions of the ACA regardless of citizenship.
There may still be some payment caps as the ACA phases in the first couple of years. In that regard, it may not be sufficient since that coverage is often determined based on a demographic profile of relatively healthy young people with few medical needs. Treatments for illnesses that usually affect an older population, like a chronic disease, may not be sufficiently covered.
Also international student plans, if coverage is for less than a year, are not regulated by the ACA. This means they may have lower maximum coverage limits and 20% co-insurance requirements may be difficult for an international student in the event of a catastrophic illness, such as multiple sclerosis, since it would require the student pay significant fees. Policies may purport high coverage but contain dollar-amount caps on specific common benefits, which creates an illusion of coverage. (Example: $200,000 coverage but surgery cap of only $3,000.)
- For foreign J visa holders, there are minimums for insurance coverage and repatriation defined in the J-visa regulations. The J-1 visa guidelines will meet and may exceed the ACA minimum essential qualification requirements. However if for "short-term duration" which is not ACA regulated, any waiting period for pre‐existing conditions must be “reasonable as determined by current industry standards.”
- Exchange participants to the U.S. providing their own travel health insurance
should thoroughly discuss the requirements with their insurance agent
to be sure the policy will cover them.
- International participants
may need to see if medical coverage and disability benefits from their
home countries will cover costs (which are often higher) while in the
United States. This is possible only if coming for a short time and/or are tax exempt status in the U.S. so do not need to pay penalties for not having ACA required insurance coverage. Or, if returning to the home country for treatment would be a viable option.
- Some U.S. universities require individual insurance plans with no more than a 6-month pre-existing condition waiting period after the effective coverage date for international students (one or more years are the typical waiting periods).
- More details on finding individual insurance plans for travel abroad and what U.S. universities require of international students regarding insurance is discussed at Websites and offer comparisons of various individual travel insurance options.
- For international participants in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, there’s insurance plans such as Cover More Insurance that include pre-existing condition coverage to a certain extent, although may cost more for coverage.
- For international participants from the UK with medical conditions such as cancer, HIV, mental health conditions, or multiple sclerosis, there is travel insurance available through It's So Easy and World First and a more complete insurance list for kidney patients too.
- See also #5 below on if you need assistance with major medical costs.
3. Does the insurance company offer an assistance service with
a 24-hour, worldwide toll free telephone number for emergencies?
Most health insurance providers that offer international coverage provide round-the-clock access through a travel assistance company. Services such as emergency hospitalization often must be pre-approved and arranged by the assistance company in order to be paid or reimbursed. Confirm with your agent that they provide this service and that services including TTY or text messaging are available at all hours.
In the U.S, medical treatment is commonly provided first, and bills are issued later. In other countries, treatment often needs to be paid for or payment verified from the insurance company prior to care. It is important to be able to quickly receive payment or denial of payment from the exchange participant's primary insurance (which may not have this 24 hour worldwide service); the supplementary travel insurance often can be applied only in the case of denial of the primary insurance.
Additionally, signing HIPPA privacy and confidentiality waivers in advance can help insurance companies to work with exchange participants when overseas when timing is critical and services need to expedited. Students with mental health-related disabilities may also consider advanced directives.
4. What health insurance options are available for students enrolling directly into a host university?
Students who are applying directly to a university in another country should ask about health care coverage options. Students who directly enroll or are integrated into a host university may be eligible for the health services that local students in that country receive.
- Students with disabilities should investigate whether they will need additional coverage, such as pre-existing condition coverage, because requirements may vary from country to country and institution to institution.
- Find out the average cost of doctor visits or other treatments to determine how much out-of-pocket expenses one might need before getting reimbursed from home insurance for pre-existing conditions.
Participants who receive funding for a personal assistant through Medicaid are not able to use that funding once outside the United States. Travel insurance companies will typically not pay for personal assistants for daily care overseas or durable medical equipment that wasn’t related to a first occurrence of an illness or injury overseas. Since these things are unlikely to be covered for people with existing needs, programs or institutions could work with a participant to cover the costs. For example, Council on International Educational Exchange has pooled funds for participants with disabilities who require broader services or accommodations, and works jointly with the student’s home institution to cost-share expenses to make coverage possible.
Some insurers may want to consider adding coverage for repair or rentals for existing durable medical equipment or personal assistants. If an individual is duct-taping a crutch or wheelchair or relying on informal assistance for transfers, for example, this could lead to a potential injury to a back, a pressure sore, etc. and added cost for the insurer who now has an injury or illness to cover as a result of lost or faulty equipment or lack of usual personal assistance.
Most travel insurance plans also offer added benefits, including coverage for lost or damaged luggage and a 24-hour traveler hotline. For example, in the event of a wheelchair that is broken in flight, this service can assist with airline claims for damaged equipment, locating rentals abroad and coordinating repair services. Information on use of personal assistance in flights and other creative ideas on ways to fund personal assistants on exchange programs can be found on another tipsheet.
For medications, a doctor and exchange organization letter to the home insurance company may allow for more months of the prescription to be filled in advance to bring overseas. Travel insurance companies often have information on what medications can legally be imported or purchased in the destination country, how to locate specialists and doctors in the destination country, and how to identify pharmacies overseas or that mail prescriptions overseas. Other consideration can be found on the medications tipsheet.
For international students who encounter major medical costs for a catastrophic illness or surgery, and/or hearing aids or wheelchairs not covered by short-term duration or student health insurance, various options have been tried since non-immigrant individuals cannot qualify for Medicaid, Medicare or other U.S. public assistance. (The exception being Emergency Medicaid, a federal program that covers emergency care for patients who would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid but do not have legal immigrant status).
Alternative options include inkind services or donations from the doctor, pharmacy or hospital, contributions from associations related to a specific disease or disability, and/or fundraising donations from local community groups or international clubs. United Way's 2-1-1 provides free and confidential information and referral. Call 2-1-1 in the United States for help with food, housing, employment, health care, counseling and more. For coverage after the initial incident, with the new changes to the health care laws under ACA, international students can purchase individual plans in the Health Insurance MarketPlace and these plans cannot discrimination or fail to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions.
6. Can a medical office in the host country access an individual’s medical information and communicate with his/her physician if needed?
For participants with health-related concerns (such as epilepsy, lupus, diabetes, allergies and others) some Internet services offer the option to input and store personal medical information that can be accessed from around the world in case of an emergency. It may also be possible to upload participant files, including health information (with appropriate permission and security assurances) to the organization’s intranet for access. See the Website Resources listed below for more information. The Pacer Center also provides an emergency medical form that could be brought along on a program and shared with host families or program staff.
provides a directory of English-speaking doctors in 125 countries who provide medical assistance to travelers.
417 Center Street
Lewiston, NY 14092
Tel: (716) 754-4883
health information; provides planning guide, country information, medical provider contacts.
PO Box 13795
Milwaukee, WI 53213-0795
Tel: (800) 433-5256 or (414) 290-1900
Fax: (414) 290-1907
is a consumer health website that provides information on a wide variety of topics pertaining to health. One feature is the PersonalMD Emergency Card, which allows users to enter their medical information into a secure database that can be accessed anywhere in the world via the World Wide Web if there is an emergency.
4725 First Street, Suite 275
Pleasanton, CA 94566
Tel: (925) 417-6840
Fax: (925) 600-7568
The United States Department of Stateprovides travel and health information.
International students with pre-existing conditions are covered under university student health plans regardless of citizenship. If these plans are not available, these students will often want to buy from ACA-regulated individual market plans to get protections, although these can be more expensive. Americans traveling abroad are best with individual marketplace plans that provide coverage abroad, although these options may be limited.
If either group looks to purchase short-term duration travel accident & sickness plans, these are not ACA-regulated and they can be denied or given a waiting period for coverage of their conditions and other exclusions, such as for suicide or mental health conditions.
By removing insurance barriers, you can support diverse students to safely participate in your programs. Options include:
- Offer group health insurance options and negotiate a plan that eliminates pre-existing condition and mental health exclusions.
- Ensure that the maximum coverage amount of the plan will cover those who are first diagnosed or become disabled overseas, extends coverage on return home, and considers case-by-case those who exceed maximum amounts.
- Assist students with or direct them to insurance companies to find out about medications that can and cannot be imported or purchased in countries abroad, and how to arrange for needed medications.
- Budget separately as an organization for assistance with durable medical equipment replacement rentals or repair emergencies abroad (e.g. wheelchairs, hearing aids, crutches, etc.) and personal assistant services.
- Check if students are adequately insured and educate
them on plans that will cover pre-existing conditions if your office
does not offer these options.
With these options in place, it shouldn’t prevent qualified individuals from participating in exchanges and alleviate some of the difficult health cost issues that exchange staff and students need to deal with during the program.
*The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange's 2009 Working Group on Travel Insurance and Disability included: Anne Cohen, Health and Disability Policy Consultant and Director, Disability Health Access, LLC,Cerise Roth-Vinson, Manager, National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange / Mobility International USA, Chris Bramwell, Assistant Director of Exchange Programs, AMIDEAST, Colin Davies, Director of Capacity Building Services, World Learning, David Levin, Senior Program Manager and Diversity Coordinator, U.S. Department of State / Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Janice Jeng, Assistant Vice President Sales & Client Services, USI/Travel Insurance Services, Jolie Vincent and Amber Lee, Wells Fargo Student Insurance, Laurie Duston, Manager of iNEXT, Council on International Educational Exchange, Michele Scheib, Project Specialist, National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange / Mobility International USA
Note: Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by Mobility International USA/ National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. Although efforts have been made to assure accuracy, MIUSA and NCDE do not guarantee the accuracy of these listings. MIUSA/NCDE cannot be held liable for misinterpretation or complaints arising from these listings.