The 68-year-old, who has suffered three heart attacks, has already travelled to Cuba and Japan this year without insurance, although during his work life as a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art he always bought it. For Harding, the choice is to go without insurance or stay at home.
“I just think, ‘What the heck?’You have to make the best of your time in this world, ” he explains. Travel insurance, Harding says, is either unavailable to someone with his health background or so expensive that “it wouldn’t be worth me going abroad, because it costs the same as the holiday”.
He is not alone. This is a problem experienced by increasing numbers of older people and those suffering from medical conditions who want to join the rest of the population in taking advantage of affordable foreign holidays. The greying babyboomers of today are perhaps less willing to stay at home by the fireside while the young go abroad, even if they are not in the best of health.
But travel insurers are slamming the doors unfairly on whole sections of the population, according to Andrew Anderson of Maggie’s Centre Edinburgh, where cancer sufferers access advice and support.
Harding does his best to minimise the risk – he is covered under his house insurance for loss of possessions and carries the new European medical card, which entitles him to state care in the European Union.
He has turned down insurance policies which exclude his heart condition, a common practice. “The ones that will insure you say they won’t insure you for anything to do with your existing medical condition, which is the one thing you really need cover for, so that doesn’t seem a very good deal, ” he says.
Harding does worry about getting ill away from home but tries not to think about it. If he were able, he would happily fork out for a flight home out of his own pocket, rather than languish abroad. But his main worry is dying abroad. “That does concern me, ” he says. “I’d have loved to have died in Cuba. But I have heard it could cost about [GBP]20,000 to bring a body back home. I’d want my family just to bury me wherever I fall. After all, it’d be cheaper for them all to have a holiday out there than to bring me back.”
Harding’s experience is shared by retired journalist David Kemp, who is in his late 60s and was in hospital for several months last yearwith a life-threatening condition. Next week, he will set off to Germany without travel insurance. “I do worry about it. I’m travelling with a friend who is the same age so we can look out for each other, ” he says. “It would put me off travelling alone.” Kemp also carries the EU medical card.
Ever since he was a young man, Kemp has regularly bought travel insurance: “Every time I went away, I took travel insurance from my travel agent. But now I really need it, I have to start travelling without it.”
Susan Oliver is a pharmacist in her 50s undergoing treatment for cancer.
She says: “It’s a disgrace that people have these problems. Travel insurance companies are only in it to make a profit, but there should be legislation that prevents them from discriminating against so many people.”
Last year, she says, a close friend who had secondary cancer was unable to get travel insurance owing to his condition. “He went to the Galapagos islands, so it wasn’t as if he was just going to Italy or something, ” she says. “It was a big trip, but he just felt it was something he had always wanted to do and he felt it might be his only chance, so he took the risk.”
Planning and taking holidays can be particularly important to cancer patients, she says, as something to look forward to. Some are more fortunate when purchasing travel insurance. Dorothy Tomcey, 81, suffers from cancer but regularly travels abroad with coach firm Wallace Arnold. “I’ve been all over the place, to Russia, Egypt, Morocco, ” she says. “I’m off again quite soon. I have to call the medical line and answer some questions. So far, I’ve always passed.” She doesn’t worry about what happens if she fails but, if turned down for insurance, she would stop her travels.
Pensioner Isobel Meikle actually cancelled a holiday to the US and Australia after being turned down by four travel insurers. Her husband had a knee operation and has a heart condition. “They wouldn’t insure us for anything to do with the condition, ” she says. “They just want to make sure everything is safe. I thought it might be that he was at risk of deep-vein thrombosis.”
Meikle’s conclusion that the judgment was based on knowledge of the condition is a common one but may not be accurate, says Anderson.
Insurers are commercial firms who can exclude whom they choose.
“They do seem overly exclusive and penalise people unfairly with very high premiums, ” he says. “People who have cancer often want to go on holiday after their treatment has finished or during a break in it. We can put them in touch with companies that will insure them, but the premiums can be very high.
“They ask lots of searching questions about your treatment and then, if they come back and say, ‘We won’t insure you’, people react emotionally.
They feel the insurer perhaps knows more about the condition than the specialist or that things are being kept from them. But that is not the case.
“Where people do get insurance it tends to have a waiver clause so that it doesn’t cover anything to do with their condition. Say you had a course of chemotherapy and a couple of months later you went to Rome. If you happened to slip on some steps and broke your arm, your insurer might say the fall was because you were tired due to the chemotherapy, so you’re not covered.
“People with cancer do end up travelling without insurance, particularly to countries such as the US, where medical care is expensive.
While we don’t advise people to travel without insurance, for some people in some situations it’s what makes the most sense.”
A survey last month by Help the Aged showed that 91percent of travel insurance policies on the market impose an upper age limit. More than one in four of the annual policies examined will not cover the 9.4million people in the UK aged 65 and over, and by 75 almost 70percent of policies refuse cover.
Mark Christopher, of Help the Aged Travel Insurance, says: “We launched Help the Aged Travel Insurance more than 10 years ago in direct response to many calls from older people unable to get travel cover simply because of their age, and unfortunately it seems that things aren’t really improving. This is, effectively, age discrimination and really narrows the horizons of the increasingly active over-65s.”
Help the Aged’s oldest insured holidaymaker is aged 105. However, as with other charity services, it uses commercial underwriters and excludes or puts large excesses on pre-existing medical conditions.
Sandra Shand, 66, is currently unable to find affordable insurance.
She says: “They seem to play a numbers game and as soon as you have four medical conditions, even if they are extremely mild, you can’t get it.” She spends longer on the phone before every holiday because the one company who would give her annual cover no longerwill.
Helena Scott, of Age Concern Scotland, believes the time is right for a review of the law governing travel insurance. She says: “Insurance underwriters are private companies and driven by commercial rules. They can insure who they like.
“There is no discrimination law in this country. The only age discrimination legislation which we have is coming in next year and that will only cover employment and training.
We’d like to see discrimination legislation going further.”
26th September 2006