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Insurance policy results in nightmare trip home

Travel woes: Shuswap resident Alida Hilbrander recovers from a broken hip in Shuswap Lake General Hospital. - James Murray/Observer
Travel woes: Shuswap resident Alida Hilbrander recovers from a broken hip in Shuswap Lake General Hospital.
— image credit: James Murray/Observer

A trip to a tropical paradise turned into a hellish journey for one Shuswap resident.

Injured in a fall and prepped for surgery in a Costa Rican hospital, 76-year-old Alida Hilbrander was advised instead to be ready for pick-up by air ambulance.

Her experience is not something her insurer, BCAA, is willing to talk about, citing privacy concerns.

But an angry Hilbrander wants to share her story as a warning to others.

Hilbrander was in San Jose, Costa Rica March 5 to attend an Institute of Global Education conference.

The White Lake resident headed south, confident she had all her bases covered – complete with travel health insurance and flight cancellation.

A brief vacation was also in the works, but her fall at the end of the first day of the conference resulted in a broken hip.

Hilbrander was taken to what she describes as an excellent hospital in San Jose, where she received X-rays and plans for surgery.

One hour prior to the procedure, Hilbrander’s surgeon told her the insurance carrier had put a halt to the procedure in order to fly her back to B.C. for treatment – in two hours, at 2 a.m.

“The surgeon said it was totally unrealistic for me to be ready and we both decided if that was the plan, I would be ready by 3 p.m. the following day,” says Hilbrander, who notes the insurance rep was rudely adamant that she would be on the plane or she would have no coverage.

“But, you have nothing on, you’re in the hospital and cannot move. I couldn’t get myself organized. I had the conniptions and I told them this is not right. I was angry, I was crying.”

Jet Rescue, a critical care air ambulance, arrived on schedule and a 15-hour flight up and down, across North America began, without Hilbrander even being able to tell her travelling companions she was leaving.

“It felt like I was in a straight jacket, strapped on a stretcher. I couldn’t move,” she says, noting there were two pilots, one doctor and an attendant, none of whom spoke English. “I think there were at least three or four stops in Mexico. They had to refuel because it was a small plane, but they had other business they took care of while they were doing this.”

Nine hours after take-off, the plane was still in Mexico.

“When they actually reached San Diego, they flew north to Vancouver and that was only three hours,” Hilbrander says. “They had to go through customs and that took another couple of hours.”

By the time the plane finally reached a waiting ambulance in Kamloops, Hilbrander says she lost it.

“I had been just rigid for 15 hours, without food and only a little bit of water, and a huge diaper on,” she says. “I was screaming for the pain because my body relaxed when they took me off the stretcher.”

Now on the mend, Hilbrander is angry that she was subjected to such seemingly careless treatment – treatment that offered an ultimatum rather than choice.

Hubert Rau, BCAA vice-president of insurance marketing, sees it differently.

“We care deeply and we’re sorry when we hear about difficulties,” he said Monday, citing the need for complete customer confidentiality as his reason for refusing to comment on Hilbrander’s experience.

He said BCAA wanted to get a firsthand account of Hilbrander’s experience and had called and left a message at her residence.

“There is a plan, she will be visited. We just wanted to make sure there was time elapsed,” Rau said, pointing out it is critical customers speak to an insurance agent when they buy insurance and be cognizant of what coverage they are seeking and what the policy entails.”

Rau refused to comment generally on bringing customers back to Canada rather than getting them immediate treatment in another country.

Hilbrander’s doctor, Warren Bell, says the case illustrates the perils of relying on private insurers.

“In the public system, patient welfare is the primary concern. In the private system, there are divided interests - divided between profit and a successful patient outcome,” he said. “The chance for a misadventure while this person was travelling for 15 hours all over North America was significant. If something had gone wrong, it would have been an unmitigated disaster.”

 

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