Toronto man with broken back describes travel insurance nightmare: ‘Your 1-800 line never picks up’

Justin Oliver lies in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors at the José María Velasco Ibarra Hospital in Tena, Ecuador. Ever since he had sleepwalked off a 7-metre-high balcony three days earlier, the Toronto accountant says he had experienced delay after delay in getting help from travel insurance for an injury that doctors told him could paralyze him.Give out

Lying in a hospital bed in the rainforest town of Tena, Ecuador, with a broken back, Justin Oliver knew it would probably be another 30 to 45 minutes of elevator music before someone would answer his call to Allianz Global Assistance, his travel insurance company. .

An X-ray showed that Oliver, a 44-year-old Toronto accountant, had a lumbar fracture, the result of a sleepwalker’s fall from a six-metre-high balcony the night before, on February 16. The doctors told him he should be operated on as soon as possible – at a major hospital in the capital Quito – or he could be paralyzed from the waist down. And yet when Mr Oliver picked up his mobile phone to update his case manager at Allianz, it was once again the recorded melody that greeted him, he said.

“Please help!!!” Mr. Oliver wrote in a frantic email to Allianz from Tena’s Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra Hospital. “My back is broken and they need to transfer me, I need a translator and they want to operate right away. Your 1-800 line never picks up and this is very urgent.”

Oliver’s experience is likely symptomatic of how travel insurance companies are struggling to keep up with rising demand as many Canadians flock to tourist destinations and more of them take out insurance amid widespread flight cancellations and persistent public health concerns.

On its website, Allianz Global Assistance, which sells travel insurance in Canada, is warning customers of call times that could potentially exceed 30 minutes and claim processing taking up to eight weeks amid “higher than average” call and claim volumes. Allianz Global Assistance is a registered business name of AZGA Service Canada Inc. and AZGA Insurance Agency Canada Ltd., two subsidiaries of the Allianz Group.

While emergency medical calls are always answered first, “call volumes can fluctuate unexpectedly during the busy winter travel season, sometimes resulting in longer wait times,” said Dan Keon, vice president of marketing and insights at Allianz Global Assistance Canada, in an email. – postal statement. However, Mr Keon said his company is “prepared and fully staffed” for the current travel season.

Martin Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurance brokerage Travel Secure, said he has recently heard from customers struggling to reach their insurance providers while traveling.

This includes travelers who called seeking help in a medical emergency only to hear a taped message on the other end of the line, “which is really bad because it’s hardly the service we want or that people expect when they buy a policy, ” he said.

Isabelle Beaudoin, president and co-founder of insurance broker First Rate Insurance Inc., described handling an “unprecedented” volume of travel insurance inquiries this winter. “I wouldn’t be surprised if getting through the insurance company during the trip translates into longer wait times,” she said by email.

In a recent survey conducted by Research + Knowledge = Insights for insurer Blue Cross of Canada, 42 percent of respondents said they are now more likely to purchase travel insurance when planning a trip than in the past.

For Mr. Oliver, travel medical insurance through Allianz was part of the benefits of his BMO Ascend World Elite Mastercard. Canadians can also purchase additional or separate coverage for medical emergencies while away from home. Fares can be as low as less than $20 per person for a week’s trip, according to quotes from the economic comparison website However, the costs vary depending on a number of factors such as the age and health profile of the insured, the destination and duration of the trip and the amount of cover chosen.

Faced with unusually high demand, travel insurance providers are struggling to increase staffing due to widespread labor shortages, Mr. Firestone said. And Canada’s own health crisis can at times add to delays in repatriating injured travelers when domestic hospitals don’t have the space to accommodate them, he said.

“Travel insurance gets you back to your home province — provided there’s a bed available for them to take you,” Mr. Firestone said.

In Mr. Oliver’s case, the delays compounded an already high-stakes medical emergency. His fall at night happened while he was vacationing alone at a wellness resort in the Amazon jungle. When Allianz told him it could take up to 48 hours to get an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital in Tena, he decided to hire a private car instead, he said.

On the advice of the chiropractor, he lay on his side in the back of the car during the 40 kilometer trip to avoid putting pressure on his spine.

At the hospital in Tena, Mr Oliver said he had to ask hospital staff to roll his bed next to one of the few working electrical outlets at the facility – in a crowded hall where people kept bumping into him – to keep his phone’s battery. from dying while waiting on the line with Allianz.

Once, a receptionist transferred him to a care team, but no one answered the phone, he said. When his mother first called Allianz from Grand Bend, Ont., to ask for an update on his case, she waited an hour before the call ended with no answer, according to emails reviewed by The Globe and Mail.

In the end, Mr. Oliver underwent a successful surgical operation at Quito’s highly regarded Hospital Metropolitano, where doctors inserted two metal rods and four screws into his lower back to stabilize his spine. He can walk again, but with the help of a cane.

But while the hospital should be able to charge Allianz directly for the expenses, Allianz said it may have sent the payment guarantee to the wrong hospital in the first place. As a result, the doctors asked Mr Oliver to pay a 10 per cent deposit, which came to $3,348, out of his own pocket.

Mr. Oliver said he has yet to be reimbursed for that expense, as well as the $200 he spent on the rental car, which Allianz has also agreed to cover.

In a recent call to the insurance company from Canada, Mr. Oliver said he waited more than an hour and a half to listen to the now-familiar music loop.

“I can never hear that music again – ever in my life,” he said.

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