Stuck Sick on Study Abroad?

By David Nahmias

Fresh off the plane to Buenos Aires to begin her semester abroad, Kenley Turville ’10 quickly found herself sicker than she had ever been. Experiencing severe flu-like symptoms, she checked into a medical clinic where an Argentine doctor diagnosed her with either a viral infection she had caught while spending her summer in India or a harsh bodily reaction to the dramatic climate and food transition from New Delhi to Buenos Aires. Contracting an illness while abroad should be a scary prospect because of uncertainty with quality of care, communication, and health insurance reimbursement, but Turville remembers the occasion as painless — she received relatively high caliber health care. “Being so far from home, it was comforting to walk into the medical clinic and find the conditions like I’ve come to expect in the U.S.,” she recalls. When it came time to pay the bills, she did not have to worry about reimbursement: “My insurance plan did not balk at paying for my medical care while I was abroad.” Her and other Claremont McKenna students’ positive experiences with medical care while abroad is a credit to the diligent efforts invested by our Study Abroad Office.

Kristen Mallory, the Director of Off-Campus Study, says student health care and safety­–even over academic rigor–are her top priorities in selecting which study abroad programs to contract. She cannot provide students any advice on which health insurance plan to select, but she can recommend questions each person should ask of their physician and insurance before leaving the country. Mallory says, “My goal is to make students aware of their insurance coverage, not just in case of emergencies but even for mild problems like sinus infections.” The office supplies students with many informative pamphlets on health care abroad, but Mallory fears that many students simply disregard them. The Insurance Authorization Form signed by parents or policyholders details certain programs that provide additional health coverage or require students to buy additional insurance. The form also exhorts students to determine if their policy covers regular medical visits or only emergencies while abroad.

Students must demonstrate insurance coverage before they leave to study in another country. Mallory said she knew of only a few students last semester who purchased additional coverage, but even then, she did not know if this was due to a personal decision or because their particular programs mandated it. Additionally, the Claremont Colleges health plan includes the MEDEX Program, which provides assistance for emergency cash advances, transportation, translation, and legal assistance. And that ISIC card the Study Abroad Office requires? It provides benefits like basic travel insurance, emergency evacuation, and, as Mallory grimly notes, repatriation of one’s remains.

Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, CMC may not prohibit a student from studying abroad on account of a pre-existing health condition. Instead, the Study Abroad Office can counsel impaired students on selecting an appropriate destination. Students themselves must come forward with their health concerns. “The more you tell me up front, the more I can work with study abroad providers,” explains Mallory, who knows of no instance wherein a student picked a destination or decided not to study abroad solely because his or her insurance company wasn’t cooperative.

While abroad, CMC students tend to have positive experiences with health care. Most study abroad programs go out of their way to ensure the safety and health of their students. One popular program, CIEE Buenos Aires, provides a secondary medical insurance plan and emergency in-home care for students, according to the program’s associate director Carolina Alba Merlo. The staff takes care of students throughout the process, from the moment a person arrives at the hospital to when she files her reimbursement claims with her insurance. Merlo remarked, “If the student’s primary insurance plan does not cover all the medical expenditures in Argentina … it is our policy to pay the medical expenses in case of hospitalization, for example, and then file the claim with the international insurer.” Mallory says proudly that, in her six years working at CMC, she has never had a student whose insurance refused to pay or reimburse a hospital bill.

CMC’s program may be one of the best prepared to deal with health issues during study abroad. Our program is equal to its counterparts at the other 4Cs in terms of detail and consideration of health issues. Mallory herself sits on a nation-wide Committee of Health and Safety in Study Abroad, and she holds workshops across the world to train other study abroad officers on how to help students plan for medical emergencies.

For those CMC students who have already studied abroad, think of all the risks you potentially took to your health. We may think we’re invincible, but our bodies are not, and the thrills and stress of being in a foreign country are taxing. Fortunately, the Off-Campus Study Program makes health its priority. Mallory comments, “I’m delighted that students don’t have a sense of what our office does behind the scenes,” which allows the earnest individuals to focus on planning for academic and general living concerns.

Published with support from Generation Progress.

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