Jennifer Huculak, who lives in the Canadian province Saskatchewan, was six months pregnant when she flew to Hawaii to go on a vacation with her husband. But two days into her 2013 trip, her water unexpectedly broke; she spent the next six weeks on bed rest, and her daughter was delivered prematurely via an emergency C-section.
A year later, the Huculaks and their daughter are healthy and back at home. But they’re now facing medical bills that total $950,000 for the hospital care they received in the United States last fall. “It makes you sick to your stomach,” Huculak told CTV News. “Who can pay a million-dollar medical bill? Who can afford that?”
Although the couple purchased travel insurance from Blue Cross before their vacation, the insurance company says that Huculak’s previous pregnancy complications — she had a bladder infection when she was four months pregnant — amounted to a pre-existing condition, so her medical expenses won’t be covered. Blue Cross also maintains that the Huculaks’ plan expired while they were still in Hawaii.
Jennifer Huculak told CBC News that she’s frustrated with Blue Cross because she thought she did everything right. She had approval from her doctor to travel, and after her water broke, she tried to figure out how to return to Canada. But she couldn’t find a medical evacuation company that was willing to transport her home in her condition.
It’s not entirely uncommon for visitors to the U.S. to accrue big medical bills if they suffer from a health condition while they’re here. Travel insurance isn’t currently subject to all of the regulations under the Affordable Care Act — and the health reform law doesn’t apply to people who aren’t U.S. residents — so there can be confusion about how exactly these plans will work in practice. Other Canadian travelers have been stuck with hefty bills after unexpectedly suffering from kidney failure and struggling with high blood pressure while in the United States.
But bills for childbirth are particularly exorbitant. Giving birth in the United States costs more than anywhere else in the world, even when the procedure doesn’t involve the serious complications that Jennifer Huculak experienced. The price tag for this type of care varies widely — by up to tens of thousands of dollars — depending on which hospital you decide to go to. But the cost fluctuations are seemingly random, since high prices for childbirth services don’t correlate with a higher quality of care for American mothers.
Ironically, the Huculaks hail from the Canadian province that was the first region of their country to implement universal, publicly-funded health care. They say they’re now trying to decide if they should fight Blue Cross over their bill or declare bankruptcy.