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If tragedy strikes, travel insurance can safeguard mission teams

Laura J. Brown

While visiting his missionary son in Portugal, Chuck Carpenter was involved in a tragic car accident. The collision killed a traveling companion and left him comatose in a Lisbon hospital ward.

Carpenter was a seasoned world traveler, but he and his wife Alana hadn’t even thought about buying travel insurance for this trip. After all, they had flown to India, Thailand, the Caribbean and elsewhere without it. A former missionary to Brazil, Carpenter had spent a decade directing World Partners USA, the mission arm of the Missionary Church.

Flying him home on an air ambulance would cost the Carpenter family more than $40,000. Payment was required upfront and credit cards weren’t accepted. The family also learned that his domestic health insurance wouldn’t cover any medical expenses incurred outside of the United States, including the flight and four surgeries to drain fluid from his brain. Carpenter’s wife flew immediately to Portugal. After six grueling weeks, she finally persuaded the Lisbon neurologists to allow him to fly home. Their church and community raised funds to help the family offset the air ambulance expense.

Ensure medical care

After Carpenter’s experience, World Partners USA began requiring travel insurance for all of its short-term mission teams. The primary reason for travel insurance is to ensure that one obtains the medical care that is needed while traveling far from home, without going into debt.

Many domestic health insurance policies don’t cover medical expenses incurred in a foreign country. If they do, they reimburse travelers at a lower rate than in the United States. Air evacuations, which typically start at $45,000, are seldom covered.

Furthermore, medical treatment abroad isn’t always comparable to that at home. For instance, you may spend hundreds of dollars upfront to be admitted to a hospital. Then, hospital staff may not speak your language, and the doctors may not have the skill, tools, or medication that your condition requires for treatment. These factors can turn even a simple asthma attack into a life-threatening situation.

Many benefits included

In addition to medical protection, typical travel insurance benefits also include coverage for trip cancellation and interruption, lost baggage, accidental death and dismemberment, medical evacuation and repatriation. Some plans even offer liability insurance that could help defend a ministry traveler accused of a civil or criminal offense in a foreign country.

Insurance companies may also offer travel assistance benefits that supplement a standard policy. Such benefits may include air evacuation, worldwide legal and medical referrals, access to translators and interpreters, emergency message relay, cash advances, and prescription drug replacement plans.

Buying a travel insurance policy that covers these types of expenses provides not only protection but also peace of mind.

Prepare for success

While important, buying insurance is only one small part of preparing for a successful mission trip. Good planning can prevent many problems that you would otherwise encounter. It can also help your team respond to unexpected events. The following are suggestions for avoiding common travel risks.

Health issues:

  • Obtain location-specific immunizations
  • Determine whether local water is safe to drink
  • Pack a well-stocked first aid kit
  • Find the location of the nearest hospital or medical facility
  • Decide in advance how you’ll transport an injured person to the nearest health care provider.

Political or social unrest: It’s important to know the location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate and to find out what services or advice officials there can provide. Visit the U.S. State Department’s Web site (travel.state.gov) to learn of current conditions abroad that may affect your safety or security.

Documents: Having the necessary documents for a missions trip is essential. Appoint a trip secretary to organize the paperwork and make sure each traveler has them. Make sure the secretary keeps a copy of everyone’s passport and visa information, medical release forms and other paperwork in a safe and accessible location.

Copies are essential

It’s also important to have copies of this information and leave it with a trusted person who has a fax machine. This will help you replace lost or stolen documents. Also copy travel arrangements and leave them with a friend or relative, so you can be reached in case of an emergency.

Signed medical release forms for each traveler are essential. If English isn’t commonly spoken, consider carrying signed duplicates that have been translated into the language of your host country. And always obtain a liability release form for every traveler.

When arranging your next foreign mission trip, be sure that concerns about fund-raising, visas and vaccinations don’t distract you from taking important steps to insure the safety and health of your travelers.

Laura J. Brown is a writer and communications specialist with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, IN. [brotherhoodmutual.com]

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