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Cruise crisis: How to protect your family on vacation

(WKRC)

Every year, 20 million people board cruise ships, but there's a hidden risk when you leave the United States that may put you and your money at risk.

Local 12's Duane Pohlman discovered your US health insurance disappears when you enter international waters.

But as Duane's about to show you, there is a way to protect yourself from becoming the next victim of a “crisis on a cruise ship.”

This cruise ship MSC Divina promised a perfect getaway for Tina Wurtz and her four sisters and their mom, who just retired.

“I was really looking forward to it,” said Toni, Tina’s sister.

“Probably a once in a lifetime thing,” said Susan Shepherd, Tina’s mother.

You couldn't beat the price.

“We paid $534 roughly for a seven-day all-inclusive, supposedly, cruise,” said Tina.

So, on November 4th, the sisters and mom set sail. Soon, they were basking in the sun on the ship and on a beach in Jamaica.

They were even snorkeling with sea creatures in the Cayman Islands.

But the picture perfect-trip would soon change with a slip on the ship's deck near a pool.

Tina's sister. Toni Rozshahegyi, took video after Tina fell. So, the perfect, wonderful trip for the girls became… what?

“Ughhhh. It was a nightmare. I mean it was a true nightmare,” said Toni.

Toni is a respiratory therapist. Another sister, who is a nurse, was at Tina's side.

As you can clearly see in Toni's video, rain had soaked the floor. The fall fractured Tina's femur, the big bone in her leg.

Tina was taken to the ship's infirmary as the rest of the family grew increasingly concerned. It was clear, they said, Tina needed surgery and that couldn't happen on the ship.

“So, I said to this doctor, what's the plan? We need to get her off this ship,” said Toni.

But Divina was in the middle of the Caribbean and a medical evacuation wasn't an option.

Tina was given morphine while she waited more than 12 hours for the ship to arrive in Cozumel, Mexico.

Toni called Tina's health insurance company to get ready for the medical bills, but was shocked by what she was told.

TONI: [Quoting the insurance company] “We only pay in the United States.”

DUANE: “Is that the first time you realized insurance none of it applied?”

TONI: “Yes.”

DUANE: “Were you stunned?”

TONI: “I was stunned!”

CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg says many Americans are stunned to find their health insurance ends at the border.

DUANE: “How often does this happen”

GREENBERG: “It happens more often than you think.”

“In 9 out of 10 cases your medical insurance won't cover you when you're outside the United States,” said Greenburg.

When the Divina finally docked in Cozumel. Tina was taken to the Mexican hospital. Her family was stunned again.

“They leaned over the bed to my sister and said, ‘We need $4,000.’ And she said, ‘I don't have $4000’,” said Toni.

Her sister did though, and handed over her credit card.

It paid for her room and these images from a scan that finally brought Tina's fracture into focus.

“It was a horrible, horrible femur fracture,” said Toni.

The hospital told Tina she needed surgery, but…

“I told my sisters that I don't want to have surgery in a Mexico hospital,” said Tina.

The sisters agreed and booked a specially equipped plane to fly her to a Fort Lauderdale.

TONI: “Air ambulance, which was over $14,000 just to fly to Florida.”

DUANE: “Did you have $14,000 to spend on an air ambulance?”

Again, her sister put it on a credit card.

The total medical bill for Tina's care on the ship, Mexican hospital and air ambulance topped $20,000.

“And that's not counting the surgery I had in Ft. Lauderdale,” said Tina.

A surgery where a rod and pins were inserted 44 hours after her fall. It was the only item covered by her health insurance.

DUANE: “How much in debt are you in right now?”

TAMI: “At least $20,000.”

But all that debt could have been avoided with one, special policy with a long name: “Medical evacuation and repatriation insurance,” said Greenburg.

It's not travel insurance. Those policies Greenberg says usually limit what's covered. Medical evacuation and repatriation insurance covers the cost to stabilize you in no matter where you are then pays to fly you back to a US hospital for treatment.

The cost?

“It's about 450 dollars a year, not per trip,” said Greenburg. “I carry a card from one of those companies and i recommend everyone does it, whether you're going to Des Moines or Deli.”

Greenberg's advice comes too late for Tina, who's trying to recover, both physically and fiscally from that fall that cost so much.

DUANE: “Will you ever cruise again?”

TAMI: “I don't think so. I'm kind of scared right now. So, I would say no right now.”

Tina is trying to recover, but it's going to take a long time.

She gets around now by using a cane as she works to pay off all that debt.

Does that insurance work for other types of travel?

Yes. It's called "medical evacuation and repatriation" and it covers you whenever you're out of the US and in most cases here in the US.

There is an approval process. Check with a travel agent for details.

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