Saskatchewan family struggles with insurance after being billed $1 million for Hawaiian birth

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
A premature baby at Civil Hospital (CHU) waits in an incubator during the relocation of the hospital of Charleroi, southern Belgium, to another one a few miles away, October 18, 2014. The relocation of the hospital to the new building a few miles away is considered by local authorities as the biggest transportation move of patients in one operation in Europe in the last 50 years. The move should take about 2 days in total to relocate 146 people. REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY)

A family in Saskatchewan that is facing a nearly-$1 million medical bill after giving birth in the United States is just the most recent Canadian to find themselves juggling unexpected expenses.

But while the family in question believes believe their travel insurance is in order, experts are urging travellers to read the fine print of their policies before jetting off to parts unknown.

CTV News reports that Saskatchewan resident Jennifer Huculak and her husband were left holding a $1 million medical bill after she unexpectedly gave birth during a vacation to Hawaii.

The birth came nine weeks early and the child was placed in intensive care for two months. Huculak herself required six weeks of bed rest in a Hawaiian hospital.

She told the network that he purchased Blue Cross insurance and received approval from her doctor to travel. Still, the family returned home with a lofty bill by which to remember the trip.

"It makes you sick to your stomach," she told CTV Saskatoon. “Who can pay a million-dollar medical bill? Who can afford that?”

Saskatchewan Blue Cross did not return a request for comment from Yahoo Canada News. However, CTV News cited a letter the insurance agency sent to Huculak noting that she “was diagnosed and treated for a high-risk pregnancy in the six months prior to departure.”

Blue Cross called this a pre-existing condition that nullified her insurance, though Huculak says it was a simple bladder infection that led to bleeding.

While the argument is surely frustrating for the Huculak family, it is by no means the first time misunderstanding has led to hefty medical bills for Canadian travellers.

There have been recent horror stories from a North Bay, Ont., senior who was billed $128,000 for a kidney failure in Florida after apparently filling completing her insurance documents incorrectly.

A North Vancouver senior was billed $112,000 after suffering pneumonia in California.

Another Canadian pensioner was billed $50,000 after suffering a blood clot in her leg. Her insurance company refused to pay, citing a kidney disorder as a pre-existing condition.

There are countless other complaints for tens of thousands of dollars, usually pitting travellers who believed they had proper coverage against companies who believed they did not.

While every insurance coverage debate is different, the reaction to each is similar: frustration mixed with outrage, compounded by a sense of injustice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Chris Krug, a travel insurance expert with Kanetix, an online insurance comparison site, says insurance companies genuinely want to help.

“They never want to be in a position to deny a claim,” Krug told Yahoo Canada News on Tuesday. “When they talk to you, they are straight-up with you. But it is for a reason, they are taking the traveller’s best interest in mind.”

Kurg says every claim its own set of rules and policies about pre-existing medical conditions, and its own set of rules about when and how it is safe to travel when pregnant.

It is worth noting that the Canadian government lists weeks 18 to 24 as the safest time for a pregnant woman to travel, with most common obstetric emergencies happening in the first and third trimesters. It also urges pregnant travellers to review their insurance policies to ensure they are covered.

Kanetix works with nine different insurance companies and each one has its own statement and guidelines defining what will be covered. Some policies will cover a woman travelling within her first 18 weeks of pregnancy; others will offer coverage up to 32 weeks. In almost every case, coverage will not extend into the eight weeks ahead of the child’s expected date of arrival.

Most emergency medical coverage will help alleviate the cost incurred by the expecting mother, while some others will extend that coverage to the newborn.

“Always speak with your medical professional and get their input about whether it is safe or not, whether it is safe to be on airplanes versus driving,” Kurg said. “My next advice would be to shop around for the best price, but be sure that once you get the prices you are speaking to the insurance companies directly to make sure that all your needs are covered. For yourself and for the expected child.”

None of this will come as much solace for Huculak, who maintains that she was travelling within an appropriate timeframe under appropriate insurance. But it should be a reminder to the rest of us to check our travel insurance carefully. Snafus are more common than you’d think.