Travel Insurance on High Seas: Don’t Leave Home without It
If a cruise vacation and planning for the unexpected sounds exciting, then taking a tour on the high seas can be a downright adventure and a travel agent’s worst nightmare.
Even the Love Boat had nothing on an elderly Florida couple, who were allegedly left stranded by Royal Caribbean in a small Turkish town after the husband fell and broke his hip on board a 12-day cruise to Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, and Bulgaria.
Jill Melkonian, of Clearwater, had an old-fashioned travel agent, but needed some sound medical care beyond the ship’s capabilities after her husband, Dodge, was injured.
Tammy Levent, founder of Elite Travel and the couple’s long-time travel agent, told Fox News that the ship’s crew left them at an ill-equipped medical facility in Bartin, a rural province in northern Turkey on the Black Sea where little English was spoken and, because of cultural regulations, women were prohibited from entering inside.
Had it not been for the travel agent’s connection to an English-speaking tour guide located in Bartin, Levent said the couple would have been left to fend for themselves.
Love Boat Gone Wrong
As the ship departed for its next port of call, the tour guide was able to act as a translator and arrange – 24 hours later — for Dodge Melkonian to be transported on a seven-hour ride over rugged terrain to an American hospital in Istanbul.Hospital physicians and staff performed the surgery, but since then Dodge Melkonian faced further medical procedures including a blood transfusion. Meanwhile, cost for the hospital is $10,000 per day.
“Travel insurance is a must,” said Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association® which builds consumer awareness of international healthcare options through outreach efforts in the United States and across the globe. “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.”
The Melkonians had travel insurance, but it had been orchestrated along with the trip by Royal Caribbean after the couple had a previous journey with the liner cut short by a fire in their cabin on a cruise to Southeast Asia in April. Levent says she ordinarily would have recommended additional insurance, but the couple was not eligible for the coverage because the cruise was free.
“It’s important for travelers to understand the insurance coverage they have,” said Stephano. “Travelers who find themselves in an environment unsuitable for care should have appropriate medical insurance to cover an emergency evacuation to the nearest medical center where the required procedures, treatments and medicine are readily available.”
Stephano said patients need greater access to international report cards that grade provider safety and effectiveness and patient satisfaction for hospitals and physicians that recognize quality differences in medical care around the world. She said, fueled by growing consumer awareness, many countries have been able to establish high specialized Centers of Excellence programs to attract patients from countries across the globe.
Cruise-Liner Defends Actions
Royal Caribbean, in a statement, said the cruise line had been assisting the couple, all along.
“Even though Mr. and Mrs. Melkonian had to leave the ship, we still provided assistance to them while in Turkey…the health and safety of all our guests is always our top priority. We will continue to what we can to assist Mr. and Mrs. Melkonian, and we wish him a speedy recovery,” said spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean, Cynthia Martinez.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has been working to help bring the couple home safely, and a State Department official weighed in saying that the consulate general in Istanbul is in direct communication with the Melkonians.
“Travel agents are beginning to pursue methods of training and education that offer support for clients caught in a medical emergency,” said Stephano. “In events where insurance doesn’t cover the cost for emergency attention, a travel agent who knows the ins-and-outs of medical procedures and treatment overseas is invaluable asset for international travelers.”
‘Unexpected Beautiful Moments’
Since the incident, the couple has learned that their insurance company, Berkley, will cover the first $10,000 in hospital bills. In an email, Royal Caribbean also guaranteed the Melkonians letters of guarantee on any additional amounts more than $10,000. The email also stated that their $25,000 medical transport trip back to Florida will also be paid for.
Jill Melkonian emailed the Tampa Bay Times this week from Istanbul to say the hospital food is delicious, the Turkish people are “heartwarming and kind” and the visit has been full of “unexpected beautiful moments.”
Medical tourism generates $1 billion in revenues, representing a small, but growing fraction of tourism receipts for the Turkish economy. Local businesses are hoping to capitalize on government initiatives to establish an even greater medical tourism presence in Istanbul and throughout Turkey and allow the industry to do what traditional travelers had not done for their pockets in the past.
The Turkish government sees medical tourism as means to boost travel revenues and narrow its account deficit by attracting foreign patients who seek a higher quality of healthcare and service without compromising on costs.
Turkish officials believe the republic stands to gain $7 billion through medical tourism initiatives that lure visitors who want to combine a procedure, from brain and cardiovascular surgeries to organ transplants and stem cell implantation, with a short vacation.