Manulife unveils COVID-19-related travel insurance in face of advisories

Manulife Financial Corp. is offering COVID-19-related travel insurance for Canadians who take international and domestic trips, eliciting mixed reactions from the industry.

The policy, slated to roll out in October, will provide emergency medical coverage that includes the coronavirus and related conditions.

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It will also provide some coverage linked to trip interruptions or cancellations in the event of quarantine, Manulife said in a release Wednesday.

The new "pandemic travel plan" includes visits to regions subject to a Level 3 travel advisory, which warns against non-essential travel and which Canada has issued for all countries.

The nation's largest insurer follows some smaller providers in offering medical travel insurance that covers COVID-19, including the Canadian Association of Blue Cross in Ontario and Quebec. Trip interruptions are not covered under Blue Cross plans.

The Manulife plan includes emergency medical coverage up to $200,000 for COVID-19 and related conditions after a positive test result as well as emergency air transport to return home.

That ceiling is a far cry from the $5 million in emergency medical expenses the company covers for non-coronavirus health issues.

"Is the limit of $200,000 sufficient for more serious cases in places like the United States, where the medical expenses are astronomical?" asked insurance lawyer Sivan Tumarkin.

"We’ve heard about these cases of people who are hospitalized on ventilators for days, weeks, who are close to death and it takes them months, perhaps, to recover."

Exclusions based on pre-existing conditions are another concern. Manulife has not yet released details about the new plan or how health conditions such as asthma or lung disease might factor in to coverage availability.

"I’m happy that these coverages are coming because people want to travel and we need insurance, but my thing would be just release the policy, release the verbiage," Tumarkin said.

"The devil is in the details."

New insurance offers that arguably incentivize travel fly in the face of authorities urging Canadians to stay home, says Marty Firestone, president of Travel Secure Inc., a Toronto-based company that specializes in travel insurance.

"It’s good, it’s a step in the right direction. But why are we encouraging travelling and covering COVID if our own Canadian government is extending the U.S. border closure," he asked, referring to Manulife's plan. "That’s a little contradictory."

Air Canada and WestJet now offer free travel insurance with a $100,000 coverage limit on flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and, in WestJet's case, Europe.

Firestone said he is concerned about companies "luring passengers...with this false sense of security."

WestJet has highlighted "peace of mind" through safety protocols and the no-charge insurance, which applies to reservations made starting this Friday.

"We know Canadians are seeking reassurance and our guests can now have confidence knowing they are protected against unforeseen medical costs related to the pandemic when choosing to book with WestJet," chief commercial officer Arved von zur Muehlen said in a statement last week.

Manulife's plan also covers daily quarantine-related costs of $150 per person or $300 per family for up to two weeks.

Basic travel insurance plans generally don't cover pandemics, with viral exclusions comprising a part of various insurance policies since the SARS epidemic.

"The pandemic has had extraordinary impacts on the day-to-day lives of Canadians, and at Manulife, our top priority remains the health and safety of our customers, employees, partners and communities. This specialized travel insurance is aimed at helping protect what matters most," Alex Lucas, head of insurance at Manulife, said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2020

Companies in this story: (TSX:MFC)

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