Health cover for employees working in danger spots overseas

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Staff may be sent to work on short-term assignments in dangerous locations for many reasons.
  • It is worth checking out what cover is available from an employer’s private medical insurance (PMI) policies, but business travel insurance may be the best bet for most short-term assignments.
  • International PMI and business travel insurance policies may not cover all countries and situations, so it is important to check exclusions.
  • Insurance cover is not worth having if medical treatment cannot be delivered safely. It is important to check what resources the insurer can call on.

Travel insurance may be better than medical cover for staff sent to danger hot-spots, says Peta Hodge

Whether it is journalists reporting on the war in Afghanistan, television crews covering this summer’s football World Cup in South Africa or aid workers helping the relief effort in disaster zones such as Haiti, there are many reasons why UK employers send staff on short-term assignments to danger hot-spots. For those that do, it is essential to understand the risks involved. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which can give detailed travel advice for each country, is a useful starting point.

It is also important to prepare employees by furnishing them with the appropriate training and contacts to use in an emergency. Medical cover is obviously crucial and it is worth checking out what an organisation’s existing private medical insurance (PMI) policies cover. Steve Desborough, senior consultant at Towers Watson, says some, but not all, UK-based PMI policies will provide up to UK levels of treatment for staff travelling abroad. But he warns this may not be enough. “Such policies will not cover as much as international healthcare policies in terms of routine maternity cover, drugs and dressings and GP visits,” he says.

But these are exactly the kind of thing an employee overseas, without the back-up of the NHS, might need. Even an employer with an international PMI policy should not assume staff will be covered anywhere. Many policies have exclusions, particularly for places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan.

Whether PMI is the most cost-effective way of covering people on short-term assignment is debatable anyway. Eva Nittegaard, sales and service manager at IHI Bupa Travel, says a travel insurance policy may be a better bet for assignments of less than 12 months and will also cover matters such as baggage and flight delays. But the same warning about checking exclusions applies.

Premiums may be loaded

Some policies, such as Bupa’s Worldwide Business Travel Option, have virtually no exclusions, but they may load premiums for destinations such as Afghanistan and Iraq. “The issue is not whether we cover people, because we will cover them,” says Nittegaard. “The issue is how we can help them if they are in the middle of a desert, or if it is dangerous to have an injection because needles are not clean. This is where we use partners abroad to provide air ambulances to get people to a safe place.”

Employers should bear in mind it is no good buying a particular level of treatment if it cannot be delivered in an appropriate and safe environment. For example, in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and some parts of Russia, employers are advised to buy staff membership of private clinics, run by the likes of International SOS, in advance, says Desborough. That way, treatment can be delivered locally in a safe environment. Evacuation is not always the best option.

There are other steps employers can take to protect staff on high-risk assignments, for example, providing them with basic medical packs containing items such as bandages and syringes. In fact, organisations tend to prepare so well for staff going to dangerous areas that they rarely come to any harm. As Nittegaard points out, a booze-fuelled week’s holiday in Europe is probably more likely to result in an insurance claim.

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