It pays to be persistent


Q: On August 12, 2003, while I was shopping for travel insurance to cover a 14 day cruise that my wife and I were taking on Nov. 9, I noticed the advertisement for Trip Assured, a travel insurance company which provides insurance through my cruise agent,

When I determined that Trip Assured was at least $25 cheaper than any of the other companies that I mentioned, I decided to book my insurance with them. The insurance was to cover our full cost of the cruise, which was approximately $2,000.

This proved to be a huge mistake.

On Aug. 26, my youngest brother, who was 55, and thought to be in excellent health, passed away after suffering a stroke.

After my brother’s death, my mother began to suffer from depression, and lack of appetite. After a few weeks, her weakened condition led her physician to suggest that she be admitted to a nursing home, to build up her strength. She entered a nursing home on Sept. 19. Her appetite and spirits remained low, but there no signs that she didn’t have long to live. With our cruise getting closer, I made a call to Trip Assured on Oct. 21, so that I would be well informed of what action to take if Mom’s condition worsened before the cruise, or while we were on the cruise.

The only advice that I received was to keep them informed if her condition changed for the worse. No mention was made of cancellation penalties. I told them that if they needed any additional information, they should call me. They never did.

On Nov. 1, Mom suddenly developed internal bleeding. Since this seemed to be really serious, we made the decision to drive to Massachusetts from Florida the next day. I tried to call Trip Assured, but their phone wasn’t being answered outside of regular business hours. I was able to send them a fax outlining the situation, and telling them that, unless she experienced a remarkable recovery, which would allow us to get back to Florida within a week, we’d have to cancel the cruise. When the bleeding developed, we were already in the 100 percent cruise penalty phase. I told them that if we had to do anything further, they should call me. I left them complete contact information, including my cell phone number. They never called.

Mom was given several blood transfusions. The bleeding abated somewhat, but did not stop. She died on Nov. 5, 2003. I informed Trip Assured of her death on Nov. 6, and told them to call me if the needed any additional information. They never called.

On Nov. 24, I submitted a complete claim package to Trip Assured, containing all of the information that they requested, including the death certificate, which stated that the cause of death was internal bleeding, and a statement from her family physician that the cause of death was internal bleeding, a condition that appeared on Nov. 1. He stated that this was a new, and not a pre-existing condition. I stated in the package that if further information or clarification was needed, they should call me. Again, no one called.

On Dec. 5, I received a letter from Trip Assured, and a check for half of the claimed amount. The check was stamped in bold letters: “Cashing of this check is in full settlement of all of the obligations of this contract”. I did not cash the check.

This was their logic for paying only half of the claimed amount:

“Our contract states that members (policy holders) are obligated to mitigate cost to Trip Assured, Inc. in the event of any such occurrence……when you called on October 21, 2003 (the date that I called to seek advice on what action I had to take in the event that Mom’s health deteriorated significantly, or her death occurred before or during our cruise) you should have canceled your trip due to that being 19 days before your trip. Any cancellation on a cruise more than 8 nights is 50% penalty if canceled between 29 and 15 days before the trip.”

I was more than a little dumbfounded by this statement, because all of it was an outright lie. Prior to Nov. 1, when the internal bleeding started, Mom was in no danger of dying, or even entering into the final stages of life. Nov. 5, when she died, was well into the 100 percent cancellation period, as was Nov. 1, when she became deathly ill. Moreover, absolutely no mention was made that I had any intention of canceling the cruise during this phone call.

Within four hours of receiving the letter, I sent an urgent fax to the author of the letter at Trip Assured, telling them why they were incorrect, and giving them a week to correct their errors, and pay me the remaining amount due on the claim. I also demanded that they provide me with a recording or transcript of the Oct. 21 phone call, but my request has been met with silence. Their only response to my letter was to send me another letter and tell me that my only options were to (1) Return the check, and ask them for reconsideration, or (2) Return the check, plus $100, and ask for binding arbitration by the American Arbitration Association.

Much against my will, I returned the check. Within it week, they sent it back to me with a slightly reworded copy of their original letter, telling me that their original decision stands. They did not contact me to discuss the issue, nor did they contact the physician or extended care facility. In other words, no review was done.

That’s my sad story, Chris. I hope that you can help me.

— Don Filiault

A: The more stories like yours I read, the more I’m convinced that travel insurance is almost completely useless. Even if you get a full refund on the $2,000 cruise, you will have spent so much time pursuing Trip Assured that it will be little more than a psychological victory.

Your case is tragic because you lost two loved ones – your brother and mother – only to have what appears to be a completely legitimate claim denied. I’ve dealt with numerous disputes between travelers and insurance companies, and standard operating procedure for these companies seems to be to ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

Considering that many of the travelers who buy insurance are elderly, and on fixed incomes, this “wait-it-out” approach strikes me as especially opportunistic. As far as I can tell, the insurance companies either hope customers like you will accept a partial settlement or won’t have the resources to pursue every remedy.

They underestimated you.

Although I contacted Trip Assured immediately after having received your letter, I believe it was your persistence that led to the resolution. Because, although you asked for my help, you also contacted almost every state and federal agency with jurisdiction over travel and insurance; you also wrote to other journalists and you hit the online bulletin boards hard, spreading the word about Trip Assured.

Although I politely asked Trip Assured to look into your case, which may have prompted it to review your request, the company soon realized it had a major public-relations disaster on its hands.

In mid-February, you received a call from the chief executive’s office at Trip Assured. She told you that the company had reviewed your dispute and “after considering the matter carefully” had decided to process the full amount of your claim.

Trip Assured certainly got more than it bargained for. The Knoxville Better Business Bureau and the Florida Financial Services Department continue to investigate the agency, according to your records. And, of course, now it has this story.

Incidentally, Trip Assured took the same approach with me when I contacted it. It never returned my calls or e-mails requesting a comment for this article and asking that it address your grievance. I can’t say I’m surprised.

Next time, get a policy from a name-brand insurance company that you trust – not some fly-by-night operation that offers the cheapest coverage.