Overseas & underinsured

08:46, August 03, 2010      

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Staff and patients at United Family Hospital. Photos: CFP

For expats living in China dealing with domestic medical insurance policies, a small medical emergency could turn into a disastrous ordeal, especially for those expecting the same medical attention or comprehensive coverage they would receive at home. With Chinese companies' patchy coverage and difficult reimbursement processes, many foreigners choose to skip getting medical insurance altogether.

Lily Kemps, an English teacher in China, was enjoying the scenic sights of Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region over the Spring Festival in 2008 when the fun-filled holiday turned into a nightmare for the young American.

Kemps was climbing a tree when she fell and was knocked unconscious. When she woke up in pain at a local hospital, she soon realized that the worst part was yet to come.

Severely injured and unable to speak Chinese, she couldn't explain how she felt.

"I felt like I was locked in the closet," Kemps, 24, told the Global Times during a phone interview. "I broke my pelvis and couldn't get up. The worst thing was, I couldn't even make them understand when I wanted to go to the toilet."

Kemps contacted her father back home, who was anxious to talk to the doctor. It turned out that all the doctors could say to him were two English words: "Hello, father!"

Although Kemps now laughs at this miscommunication, out of concern her father decided to call SOS International for a medical evacuation. Kemps was safely transferred by private plane to a Western-style hospital in Hong Kong where she received treatment for over 10 days.

The insurance provided by her school where she taught covered 100 percent of the medical costs, which was a huge amount of money, according to Kemps, although she couldn't remember the exact number.
However, Kemps was unaware her medical evacuation was not covered by her insurance, and had to pay $27,000 out of pocket.

Foreigners are not legally required to have health insurance in China, but many Chinese companies offer basic health insurance to employees, including inpatient emergency care. But extended policies including evacuation and treatment at private hospitals may not be included, explained Zhang Xiangli, an insurance consultant with Generali China Life Insurance, a China-Italy joint venture company.

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