Last Updated on 13 February 2020

Health Insurance on the Road: Know Where You Stand

As a publicly-funded system, Medicare provides affordable healthcare for all Australian nationals and residents who are eligible. While it provides comprehensive treatment options at public hospitals and makes it easier to afford prescription medication, Medicare coverage can be limited when an Australian who travels overseas finds him or herself in need of medical care.

Enter Reciprocal Health Care Agreements (RHCA)

To provide a short answer: no, Medicare will not cover incidences of Montezuma’s revenge (another term for “travellers’ diarrhea”). However, the existence of Reciprocal Health Care Agreements between the Australian government and that of the following countries ensures that citizens will be able to receive restricted access to that country’s healthcare services:

– Belgium
– Finland
– Italy
– Malta
– The Netherlands
– New Zealand
– Norway
– The Republic of Ireland
– Sweden
– The United Kingdom 

Here, “restricted access” refers to medical treatment that becomes necessary during a visit to that country.

Eligibility for Reciprocal Health Care

Simply mentioning that you’re an Australian citizen or national is insufficient if you hope for reciprocal health care to be rendered. If you require medical care in a country that is a participant in the RHCA with Australia, you have to furnish proof such as an Australian passport, or a passport that displays proof of Australian permanent residence, and a valid Medicare card.

As such, travellers need to ensure their Medicare cards are valid prior to leaving the country. Additionally, you would need to inform medical care providers in the relevant country of your wish to receive treatment under the RHCA with Australia.

Aspects of Reciprocal Health Care to Note

Reciprocal agreements provide access to medical care and treatment when needed, although not all agreements are the same. Agreements with different countries can differ in terms of provided cover and the period for which you are eligible to receive treatment. Additionally, no agreement covers all medical services required, so it is advisable for travellers to purchase health insurance for overseas visits.

Depending on the country you’re in, the RHCA may not cover the following:

– Ambulance transport
– Non-emergency treatment
– Optical treatment
– Dental treatment
– Medical evacuation back home
– Prescription medication
– Funerals
– Elective treatment
– Treatment/admission at private hospitals
– Treatment/admission at public hospitals as a private patient 

So… Travel Insurance?

Travel insurance is highly recommended to cover the issues that the RHCA may not address. It may sound like a scheme that plays on your worst travel fears to induce you to spend even more money, but medical emergencies that befall uninsured travellers can prove to be quite costly.

Combined with a lack of insurance, personal tragedies such as deaths of Australians while overseas (which can amount to 900 annually), are further compounded by the stress of arranging the (very expensive) return of the deceased. Australian consular staff have also reported medical evacuations from Bali, Indonesia whose costs exceed $60,000.

Worst case scenarios aside, uninsured travellers are responsible for covering any costs incurred by the need for medical treatment overseas. At best, it may result in maxing out a credit card’s limit. At worst, a family may have to sell assets off (house, superannuation) to be able to meet the cost.

What Travel Insurance Promises

Recommended for both frequent and occasional travellers, travel insurance insures a policyholder against incidences that can take place before or during a trip, e.g. cancellations/disruptions, baggage loss/damage, and most importantly, any medical care required.

One travel insurance policy can differ from another in terms of cost based on the coverage required, travel destination, duration of stay and the presence of preexisting medical ailments. As such, a traveller can obtain a policy that is relatively well-matched to his or her requirements.

Sometimes, illness or medical emergencies are unavoidable while travelling. While some treatments are available via the RHCA through Medicare, a travel insurance policy provides a more thorough means of handling potentially expensive medical treatments with relative ease, minimising the chance that a financial risk will occur.


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