‘Absolutely terrifying:’ Calgary family faced big medical bill despite travel insurance

The family of a father who fell ill following a hiking trip to Spain to memorialize his soldier son says they were faced with a massive medical bill — despite having travel insurance.

Michael Hornburg made the trip last fall to mark the ninth anniversary of the death of his son, Cpl. Nathan Hornburg, a Calgary reservist who was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 24, 2007, at the age of 24.

“He really felt that Nathan was there with him on the journey,” said Hornburg’s daughter, Rachel Herbert, who operates a ranch with her husband, Tyler, south of Calgary. “Four days before he was supposed to go home, he collapsed with a seizure and was admitted to the hospital.”

Hornburg was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and was unable to walk or talk.

Herbert flew to Spain to be at her father’s bedside and immediately contacted his insurer, Allianz Global Assistance Canada. She provided all the documentation from the Spanish hospital.

The neurosurgeon said her father couldn’t fly without medical accompaniment. The cost of the air ambulance back to Canada was $60,000 to $80,000.

“So there we were — stuck,” said Herbert. “After six days in this hospital wondering why we couldn’t get out of there, the insurance company got back to us to say they had denied his claim.”

Herbert was told the claim was turned down because her father failed to reveal he’d received a prescription for indigestion 18 months earlier. She was initially on the hook for the air ambulance, the hospital stay in Spain, flights for her and her husband, plus accommodation.

“They were holding us there while they scoured his medical records for the most minute thing they could find. That is what is absolutely terrifying.”

Herbert hired a lawyer and spent the better part of a year battling the insurance company to try to get the bill covered. Allianz eventually paid $27,000, but the family was left on the hook for at least another $30,000.

“I am really just ready to forget about it all. I said I don’t have the energy to deal with this any more. Let’s just take whatever little bit of money they’re going to give us,” said Herbert.

“That’s what the insurance companies want — to just burn people out until they don’t deal with it anymore.”

Members of the military in Calgary rallied and donated $25,000 to offset the costs. Herbert said the family would prefer to donate that money back to the Military Family Resource Centre.

Her father was lucky he had family at home to come to his rescue, she said.

“What would the insurance do for somebody who wasn’t as well equipped … and didn’t have the finances?” Herbert asked. “It could put somebody on the street so easily and that’s what’s so shocking for us.”

Allianz declined an interview but did issue a statement.

“We can confirm that the expenses submitted for this travel emergency, which were eligible under the policy, were both approved and fully reimbursed up to the maximum amount of coverage available for each applicable benefit,” wrote Dan Keon, senior director of market management for Allianz Global Assistance.

The president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada said there’s little doubt insurance companies look for excuses not to pay out.

“People can be forgiven for assuming that they are looking for any excuse and every excuse if you will,” Bruce Cran said from Vancouver. “That’s a tendency that’s there and … that in itself should be dealt with.”

A professor at the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University said Allianz provides one of the least expensive travel insurances. That means plenty of exclusions on coverage.

“People purchase the tickets to give themselves peace of mind … but it’s not necessarily the best insurance,” said Frank Cotae.

“The cautionary tale for anyone that may be out there is to read the policy.”

Herbert has learned a lesson.

“I would not take out a travel insurance policy without having my lawyer and my doctor both go over it.”

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