The Year of Living Dangerously
One weekend in January 2010, Mike Kelly had a decision to make. The chief executive of On Call International, Kelly had been watching from his New Hampshire office as, halfway around the world, anti-government demonstrations turned ever bigger in Cairo.
On Call, one of the nation’s biggest travel assistance companies, had contracts for political evacuation insurance on about 300 people in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, and Kelly had to decide when to pull the trigger. He called a colleague, the CEO of an Egyptian travel assistance company, and asked him how things looked.
“The guy said to me: ‘I’m at the office, but all my employees are home. They’re literally standing guard on their porches with knives in their hands,’” Kelly recalls. “That says to me it’s time for our people to go.”
So On Call kicked into gear. Kelly dispatched a fleet of vans with armed escorts through the streets of Cairo to gather up dozens of college kids, business executives and other travelers from around the city. They hired planes and sent them to Egypt. They booked hotel rooms in Athens and filled them with evacuees. They arranged meals and took care of paperwork, and they started pumping out airline tickets back to the U.S.
Of the roughly 300 people in his charge, Kelly says, “We had most all of them out by Monday or Tuesday.”
As exotic and logistically intense as it might sound, providing coverage for international crises is becoming more and more a part of the insurance business. In an age of constant global travel, and amid growing global unease, evacuation insurance for political and natural disasters is increasingly becoming standard. Service providers such as On Call are inking deals with more insurers to cover their globe-trotting members. And big industry players like Chartis and Zurich Financial Services Group are building out their own networks of international providers for healthcare and security.
“The world is getting smaller, and more and more employers are sending people overseas,” says Jim Dunn, head of group-sponsored special risks at Zurich North America. “While no one intends to have an emergency while they’re there, it does happen.”
From expatriate executives to college students spending a semester abroad to members of international NGOs, growing numbers of people are traveling to more far-flung places around the globe. Couple that with a seeming surge in high-profile natural disasters (such as the recent earthquakes in Japan, Haiti, New Zealand and Chile), terror attacks and the turmoil that has swept the Middle East in 2011, and more institutions are looking for ways to make sure their people are protected.
“Think about it,” says Joe Puzzo, senior vice president of the accident and health group at Chartis. “If you’re an employer or a university, these are people who are part of your community. These are people who have value to your organization. And there’s also an implied level of care when you send them out into the world.”
Most evacuation insurance policies are rooted in—and offered on top of—travel health plans. After all, by far the most likely scenario to befall someone working in a foreign land is still an illness or a broken bone. When that happens, a U.S. insurance card may not help much at the local hospital, meaning a big cash bill and no guarantee that you’re getting top-notch care.
That’s why a policy that gives access to a network of quality providers—wherever you are—means a lot, says Howard Gough, chief marketing officer at Cigna International Expatriate Benefits. It takes one big worry off the table.
“Say you’re an executive working on an assignment where you’re traveling in Asia,” Gough says. “You need the peace of mind of knowing you can go to a hospital in Singapore, present a Cigna card, and have it be a cashless transaction.”
A global reach can help. Chartis does business in 130 countries. Zurich is in about 170. Gough says that Cigna pays medical bills in 160 different currencies. So Cigna can provide coverage to ex-pats who travel widely, various global units of the same company, and overseas-based executives who travel to the United States, and it can provide one simple bill to the client each month, no matter what happens.
“That’s the key,” says Zurich’s Dunn. “Having the client pay one time and having us worry about allocating the costs.”
Demand for these policies has long been strong in Europe, where business travelers are more likely to cross a border or two on a sales trip. Gradually, multinational companies started buying them, too, to cover their globe-hopping personnel.
These days, interest is spreading to mid-sized and smaller U.S. firms that are trying to grow overseas, sending a small team, say, to China for a few months to open a new market. Those businesses might not have the resources of a Fortune 500 company, but for a little extra each month on top of their normal insurance, they can buy protection for a very important asset—their people.
“It’s not just senior executives. It’s also a knowledge expert who is being asked to go on a short-term assignment,” says Gough. “Think about the geologists for an oil and gas company. They’ve got a lot of intellectual property. Those people are key to the future of their organization, and protecting them is very important.”
Of course, the places those people travel to can be quite remote. Gough says Cigna has arranged for ill workers to be transported from Antarctica to Chile if they need treatment. Sometimes Cigna clients’ employees are sent to places that are less than stable political environments. And that’s where the need for overseas medical assistance starts to blend with a desire for help of other kinds.
No one can say exactly when evacuation policies became part of the standard package. Kelly points to the Haiti earthquake in early 2010 as a key moment. Everyone seems to think Egypt was a major turning point, but increasingly clients have been asking for help on the security end, too.
Whether it’s government upheaval or an earthquake, clients are looking for a way to get their people out quickly, without having to rely on, and wait for, governments and airlines. In the past, carriers have sometimes been able to provide that kind of help. Chartis pulled a client out of Lebanon during that country’s war with Israel in 2006, Puzzo says. But it meant creating a separate, and sizeable, bill.
Now, with more insurers offering a more standard package for evacuation costs on top of existing products, demand is growing. Puzzo saw the demand firsthand at an industry conference earlier this year. Turmoil was roiling in the Middle East, and companies were asking “what if?” In two days at a gathering of the Risk Institute Management Society, he had 48 meetings and heard lots of questions about what Chartis can do in an emergency.
“There was a tremendous amount of interest in the security aspect of what we do,” he says.
And for good reason, says Michael Liebowitz, director of Insurance and Risk Management at New York University. Institutions of all kinds—businesses, universities, nonprofits—are becoming more global, Liebowitz says. At any given time, NYU has overseas 3,000 to 4,000 students and faculty—the size of a small college—in dozens of countries. That’s a lot of exposure.
Liebowitz’s office monitors all those countries and keeps in close touch with companies like On Call when things start to get bumpy in a country where NYU people are teaching and studying. To any university, Liebowitz says, having the ability to pull people out quickly and safely makes a world of difference.
“The main thing we talk about is this: Do we want to put our students in harm’s way?” Liebowitz says. “Do I want to have somebody here make that phone call to a student’s parent?”
NYU had about 60 students in Egypt during last winter’s uprisings, many of them archeology students at a dig site in the desert. They decided early on to pull everyone out, and they succeeded. In a massive crisis like that, when thousands of people are heading to the airport, Liebowitz says, it’s important to have a partner who’s got connections on the ground.
“When you have a big incident, all of a sudden all the resources dry up. You can’t get your hands on a 747,” he says. “You need a service provider who’s got the ability to jump in.”
And that requires a slightly different sort of network than for traditional medical assistance. Not so much doctors and nurses as intelligence experts and security teams. Chartis, for example, has a contract with a global security company called red24 to handle its clients’ safety and evacuation needs.
The British firm, made up of ex-military and civilian intelligence personnel, monitors hot spots all over the world. Red24 employees were on the ground for Chartis in Cairo and got 185 people out early—before Western governments ordered citizens to evacuate and before most commercial air flights were cancelled.
“These guys don’t need a State Department trigger,” says Puzzo. “They stay awake on a lot of stuff, and if they say it’s time to go, we alert our clients and start evacuating.”
Their services don’t just kick in during a revolution. Many of these assistance policies also take effect in a natural disaster or if someone is the victim of a serious crime and needs help. Some plans cover identity theft or other, relatively minor, events. On its website, red24 lays out examples ranging from evacuating a family of seven from Syria to helping a victim of a home burglary in Britain.
Regardless of the service, demand is only rising. Universities are expanding study-abroad programs—or, in NYU’s case, opening whole campuses overseas. That means more students and professors spending time across the globe. Meanwhile, in a growing number of industries, international experience is an increasingly important part of an employee’s résumé. That means more short-term expatriate assignments and more globe-hopping itineraries.
So there’s a great deal of need for plans that promise coverage all over the world and—more importantly—that can fulfill that promise when a worst-case scenario unfolds. And as the world keeps shrinking, Puzzo says, that need is only going to grow.
“It’s really a part of our world now,” he says. “If you’re going to play on a global platform, this is one of the things you want to have.”