We Gotta Get Out of This Place
Reviewing the categories above, it’s clear that my Kanektok concerns are most closely related to emergency medical assistance. I’d purchased my ticket on Alaska Airlines with frequent flyer miles, and I’d only paid a modest deposit to the outfitter who would fly us into Pegati Lake, where the trip would begin. As for the value of my checked baggage, it’s well below the $3,800 maximum liability that Alaska assumes. But that $25,000+ evacuation expense looms large.
There are a number of entities that provide evacuation services for travelers experiencing medical emergencies. Most of these entities contract their underwriting (e.g., the coverage should they have to pay out for a rescue) to larger insurers, and act as a dispatcher of sorts…or at least a call center (not to mention a marketing arm for said services). As mentioned above, Global Rescue is an entity in this space with a presence in the fly fishing market. Associate Manager Walker described how they operate: “If a client calls in with an emergency, we have a team of logistics people (2 to 4 on a team) on it immediately. Most of our logistics staff are ex-military, and have extensive emergency training. We try to determine if we’ll need a doctor or other specialist at the site, and locate the nearest medical facility capable of dealing with the emergency. At the same time, we’ll reach out to the local Search & Rescue and any private rescue operators we have vetted in the area. Will we need a helicopter? Is a boat better? On one level, we’re a dispatcher like everyone else. But we’re a dispatcher with emergency expertise on the other end of the line and an extensive on-the-ground infrastructure in terms of the rescue experts we’ve vetted – and often compensate with a seasonal retainer – to be ready to jump into action should the need arise. If you use a company like Global Rescue, you’re paying a little extra for the back-end logistics expertise we can provide.”
As a self-employed person, I purchase health insurance for myself and my family. While I may drive a 13-year-old Toyota, we have Rolls Royce medical coverage; this thanks to my wife, who in her nursing career has seen firsthand how poor insurance can wreak financial havoc. When I pay our mortgage-size premium each month, I sometimes grumble—“We’re paying through the nose, and we still haven’t met our deductible?!? What are we paying for?” One thing we’re paying for, I realized after delving deep into the Pacific Source website (and some discussion with the provider’s Community Relations department), is Global Emergency Services. Per the PR representative:
PacificSource doesn’t offer “travel insurance” as a separate plan or policy for purchase, but we do have a global emergency services program offered through Assist America that does support our members in emergency type situations when traveling more than 100 miles from home or in a foreign country, for less than 90 consecutive days. Assist America needs to arrange the services in order for them to be covered under the program. Assist America is not an insurer so for example, they would not pay medical claims – those type of bills (office visit, ER, hospital stay) would still come to PacificSource for processing and member cost share would apply. They do however cover the cost of things like evacuations or repatriation of remains. They won’t reimburse someone if they paid out of pocket for those type of expense.
The phrase “Assist America needs to arrange the services in order for them to be covered under the program” gave me pause—what if I couldn’t get through and it was a life or death situation? I emailed Assist America for clarification after dinner on a Friday night. Though it was past 11pm eastern time in Princeton, New Jersey where Assist America is located, I soon received a reassuring response:
To answer your question, you can call us in the event of an emergency while traveling. If it is a true medical emergency and you require immediate medical assistance we advise you to dial the local first responders or 911 prior to notifying us. Once, you are admitted to the local hospital we will being monitoring your care and gather clinical information regarding your hospitalization in order to provide transport plans based on medical need.
Both the content and the speed of Assist America’s response did a great deal to set my mind at rest.
When I set out to write this story (and determine my own course of action), I hoped to uncover some definitive answers to the question: Do I need travel insurance when I head to Alaska in August? And if so, how much, and from whom should I buy it? My takeaway is that there is not one good or easy answer—this, because there are so many variables to take into consideration, not least among them being:
The level and nature of your personal insurance (health and homeowners) and coverage afforded by your credit card(s) and any other memberships (e.g., AAA) that might offer some travel-oriented benefits
The relative isolation, infrastructure and danger elements of the place you’re visiting
The likelihood (given your health, the health of loved ones, work responsibilities, likelihood of a surprise invitation to accompany a tech billionaire on his next trip to outer space) of needing to cancel your trip
The value of the objects you’re carrying or stowing in the hold of your airplane
Your general appetite for risk
(App developers out there—I sense an algorithmic opportunity.)
As I write, there are five days before I deport for Bethel and my float plane to Pegati Lake. Having taken the time to research options and pore over the fine print, I feel pretty comfortable about the pros and cons of the options before me. It seems that my current health insurance plan provides enough coverage to get me to Anchorage…or at least Bethel. But will the operators on hand at Assist America be able to locate my GPS coordinates on the map? Do they have good contacts in Alaska? Is it worth $149 to work with a provider that comes recommended by other fly anglers—that, as Justin Walker put it, can “call in the cavalry” when my SOS comes in?
Right now, I’m leaning toward not purchasing additional coverage. If I were in the South Pacific, or northern India, or Bolivia, I wouldn’t think twice about it. But though the Kanektok is a wilderness destination, it’s not too far from several hospitals. And there’s a decent number of bush pilots and other outfitters operating in the area. I’d love to think I’m getting some extra horsepower from that Rolls Royce health care coverage.
But at the same time, I’d hate to find myself in a bare-bones clinic in Quinhagak overseen by a young first year resident who’s still a little squeamish about blood …