Many travelers are covered by health insurance in their home country. However, this protection does not travel with them when they go abroad. Perhaps these uninsured globetrotters are unaware that their coverage is not worldwide. Most people probably think that they won’t need health insurance. They have a vague notion that their embassy will step in if the situation is too bad.
The Thai island of Phuket has had a huge problem with uninsured travelers. Foreigners come to the popular beach destination, get injured and then are unable to pay their hospital bill. By some estimates, hospitals across all of Thailand have lost $5.58 million (200 million THB) in unpaid hospital bills from tourists over the past 12 months.
Tourists can’t pay for unforeseen emergencies
About 25,000 tourists had to visit Phuket’s main medical facility, Patong Hospital, in the past year. The number of these patients who were covered by medical insurance was estimated at less than 1,000. Actually, a majority of these people are able to pay out of pocket for minor treatments (stitches, antibiotics, blood tests), but many of those who need more care cannot foot the bill, and they don’t have insurance to fall back on. The most dire medical emergencies involving tourists are usually related to traffic accidents.
Public hospitals throughout Thailand are already operating on a shoestring budget because they have to take care of everyone who enters their facility. This is an even harder situation for places like Patong, which have to treat a huge number of tourists in addition to local patients.
Getting a solution off the ground
Thailand has been trying to launch an insurance scheme for travelers for the past few years. A promising 2013 plan, which featured a 500 baht ($14) insurance policy for tourists, never came to fruition. A scheme known as Thailand Travel Shield now offers short-term coverage with rates starting at about $20-$40. This service is offered in conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Even with these options, most tourists still travel in Thailand without insurance. The best solution to this, according to Phuket’s governor, Chamroen Tipayapongtada, would be to simply require every tourist who enters the country by air to have insurance. “We need to have better coordination with the country of departure. Perhaps asking airlines to include insurance for foreigners booking tickets to Thailand would simplify the process. You would end up paying more, but you could save yourself from serious financial trouble.” He added, however, that making such changes to Thailand's laws would be above his pay grade.
Reasonable rates and greater awareness, but no requirements yet
The rates for insurance are reasonable. Adding $20-$40 onto an $800-$1,200 airfare seems like an ideal solution to the problem. Also, because of the terrorist attacks across the globe over the past few months, people are more aware of the possibility of something catastrophic happening when they travel.
Though travelers are much more likely to be seriously injured by a traffic accident than by a terrorist attack, the latter usually gets more media coverage. Indeed, TAT has been quick to point out that its Thailand Travel Shield program will provide full coverage for things like the bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok (this past August).
Health insurance that covers catastrophic events is relatively cheap. Foreign tourists might not even notice if it is tacked on as an entry tax or an air travel fee. That said, Thailand has not been able to come up with a concrete plan yet, so most tourists will continue to be uninsured when they visit the Land of Smiles.
More from TravelPulse