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The Importance of Emergency Medical Coverage and Other Health Precautions when Traveling Overseas

Before traveling abroad, it is important to be aware of the health and safety risks you may encounter and take precautions to ensure that you have adequate coverage in an emergency. Travel in some countries may expose you to disease, hazardous transportation, or high rates of crime; the risk may be even greater if there is inadequate medical care. One of the many precautions travelers can take is to purchase emergency medical assistance and medical insurance plans that provide coverage for short trips and longer stays abroad.

The Benefits Office, Travel Office and the Office of International Programs (OIP) have materials on companies that offer evacuation and emergency aid insurance. You can purchase insurance for the cost of evacuation and treatment during evacuation, or you can buy complete medical coverage for your trip abroad. Policies for overseas medical insurance offer a range of travelers assistance services, including one or more of the following: legal assistance, lost document assistance, weather forecasts, passport requirements and emergency cash advances. Many credit card companies feature travelers assistance programs for their cardholders. These programs can make reservations, replace lost or stolen items and arrange for emergency medical transportation.

Medical Coverage

Before you travel abroad, check health advisories in the region where you will be traveling. Also be aware of immunization requirements, the quality of water, and laws governing the import of medications and medical supplies including contraceptives. Information about health conditions abroad can be obtained at the Penn campus by visiting the Travel Medicine and Immunization Service at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, which offers people traveling abroad counseling and immunizations. The clinic is located at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Ground Floor, Silverstein Building. For information or an appointment call 215- 662-2427 or call PennHealth at 800-789-PENN (7366). Other sources of information include your family physician, Penn Student Health Services at, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at

Continuing your medical insurance when you travel is important, but you may consider purchasing additional medical insurance to cover the immediate payment of medical bills while abroad. In a medical emergency, most plans will reimburse reasonable charges for emergency medical assistance, as long as members follow the health plan's procedures for notification during a medical emergency. As a safety precaution, you can learn how to get medical assistance in the country you are visiting before the need arises. Blue Cross (Plan 100 or PENNCare) members can check with Blue Cross to see if they have contracted with a hospital near their travel destination. A list of Blue Cross participating hospitals abroad is also available in Penn's Benefits Office.


You should determine if the prescription medications you are currently taking are available abroad. Travelers who get medications refilled abroad may find themselves unexpectedly over medicated because doctors in Europe and abroad sometimes prescribe stronger doses than doctors in the United States. If you use a prescribed self-injected medication, you may need to bring your own needles and syringes. Foreign customs may require a physician's prescription for medications and medical supplies, and having your prescription in more than one language is useful.

Emergency Medical Coverage Options

Emergency medical coverage and evacuation insurance is an important precaution for anyone who travels. However, if you are traveling in developing or third world countries, evacuation insurance may be especially important. If you get seriously sick, you may not want to be treated at a local hospital; in some developing countries, people are advised to stay at home and wait for a house call, because their homes may have more acceptable surroundings than the hospital.

Penn's Travel Office and the Office of International Programs have information and applications for emergency medical coverage for students, faculty or staff who are working, studying or traveling abroad. One insurer suggests purchasing at least $50,000 of medical evacuation coverage. You may also want to consider a policy that makes a payment directly to the provider instead of reimbursing you for expenses later. Another important feature to look for when purchasing medical emergency insurance is repatriation of remains.

The International Student Identity Card (ISIC) may be provided to Penn students studying abroad. The ISIC card includes basic insurance coverage, and limited emergency medical coverage of up to $25,000 for evacuation and $7,500 for repatriation of remains. Students who are vacationing or traveling abroad can purchase the ISIC through the Council on International Educational Exchange, which can be reached at or contact their West Philadelphia office at 215-382-0343.

The purchase of medical and evacuation insurance for travel is considered a personal expense by the University and is not reimbursable. Faculty and staff requiring medical assistance abroad during the course and scope of employment may be eligible for the benefits provided under the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Statute and University HR Policy Number 714. Workers Compensation benefits include assistance in securing medical attention or evacuation, or a hospital deposit or guarantee up to $5,000. If you need to use the benefit, call the CIGNA International Assistance Alarm Center 800-542-5911 or call collect to 215-244-2211. Identify yourself as a faculty or staff member of the University of Pennsylvania; the CIGNA Plan Number is 01 SP585 and the University contact is the Office of Risk Management at 215-898-4327.

If you have a Corporate American Express Card through the University, you can purchase medical transportation insurance through the American Express Global Assist Plus Program. The cost is approximately $130 per person and insures you for an entire year. For more information, you can contact American Express Global Assist Plus Program at 800-544-AMEX (2639). The American Express Platinum Card includes this coverage and costs $300 a year.

American Express and many other credit card companies provide a service that arranges for emergency medical care and transportation but does not actually pay for it. The service is accessible to all card holders, regardless of how travel tickets are purchased. However, travelers may be faced with some surprisingly high bills once they arrive home. Contact your credit card company to learn what types of travelers assistance it provides.

-- Personnel Benefits Committee/Human Resources Office

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, February 10, 1998, Volume 44, Number 21