How I Used My Credit Card Insurance to Pay for My Surgery Abroad

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Okay, kids, strap in: this is a long one.

This article won’t focus solely on miles and points implications for my medical situation.

Rather, I’m going to tell my story, step by step, to hopefully give you some insight into how insurance works and how you can apply it to yourself if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in a similar situation.

Okay, so let’s get one thing out of the way first…

I used The Platinum Card® from American Express—specifically the CANADIAN version—for this experience. 

The reasons for this are simple:

I primarily live in Canada, and I departed for my trip from Canada.

The terms and conditions of insurance coverage often have restrictions about where you live, when and from where you depart for your trip, etc.

💡 Pro Tip: Actually read your Certificate of Insurance for your premium credit card. It is extremely important to understand the terminology, what is covered, how to seek treatment, and other details of your insurance.

But also, the insurance on the Canadian version of the card is actually significantly better than the U.S. version. 😬

So… that’s a nice win for you Canadians. 🇨🇦

Here is how the story went, though…

Part 1: The Symptoms

After arriving in Bandung, Indonesia, I started to feel a bit of discomfort in my abdomen. Given where I was, I assumed it had been food-related.

But over the course of a few hours, the discomfort turned to pain, which got out of control.

One thing you need to know about credit card insurance is this:

You increase your odds of getting your emergency covered by insurance if you get approval for any and all treatment ahead of time.

However, an emergency is an emergency.

In the past, when getting sick abroad, I’ve always called the insurance company ahead of time for approval.

In this case, I went straight to the hospital without even thinking about insurance.

Even with the requirement to get pre-approval for treatment, they also are extremely understanding of the fact that emergencies happen and not every situation allows for calling ahead.

Part 2: The diagnosis

Anyway, I went to the only hospital in Bandung and underwent an exam, some bloodwork, and an ultrasound.

I know from past experiences that these types of tests are almost always covered by good credit card emergency medical insurance, so I didn’t hesitate to agree to all of them without calling the insurance company ahead of time.

It was immediately obvious that my appendix was the problem, as it was… huge…

The doctor insisted that I stay in the hospital overnight and consult with a surgeon first thing in the morning.

This is where things started to get VERY messy…

Part 3: The hospital from hell

My initial impression from the first hours and first night in the hospital was:

This place is not equipped to have me here or perform this surgery.

Here’s why:

  • Nobody at the hospital spoke English (this was far from any major city or tourist area, so it was not their fault at all - but still an issue for me)

  • The hospital was a mess. The staff were pretty reckless when it came to injecting things in me, spilling blood, etc. - I was worried about sanitation.

  • The windows didn’t close all the way. As I spent the night and saw the bugs everywhere, I was really concerned about getting surgery and having an open wound.

  • The power was constantly going out. Obviously, going under the knife with the lights out is terrifying.

To say that I was afraid and stressed was an understatement.

Not being able to talk in English, being in immense pain, and not having faith in the competence of the staff and facilities made me consider other options.

The nearest serious hospitals were either three hours away in Jakarta or a two-hour flight away in Bali.

Ultimately, the risk was far too high to leave Bandung. If my appendix burst (which the doctors in Bandung were seriously concerned about), it could be fatal.

So I decided to stay, despite my concerns.

At this point, you’ll want to take a quick coffee break. The next part is tedious and quite a doozy…

Part 4: The insurance

The morning after being admitted to the hospital, the fun began.

At this point, I knew that I needed surgery, that I’d need multiple days in the hospital, and that it would be expensive.

So, I started the process of filing an insurance claim.

First, I called the insurance phone number associated with my Canadian Platinum card.

You can usually find these numbers on the bank’s website and certainly in the insurance brochure you receive with your card, but you can also find it online as a PDF (here is an example of the one I used).

These are the Canadian numbers, so don’t go saving them in your phone 😉

I recommend doing the following NOW:

  • Save these insurance brochures for your most premium cards as PDFs.

  • Email them to yourself with a subject line like “Platinum Card Insurance” so you can easily find them on your phone quickly and easily.

  • Save the phone number as a contact in your phone.

Trust me, having this information at your fingertips when things go wrong will save you one of the many headaches you will experience.

So when I first called, the initial step was to word-vomit my situation to the agent. I just told them what had happened up to this point.

At this point, they’ll ask you some important questions, which you might want to have answers to:

  • What type of card do you have, and what is the card number?

  • Personal info like home address, date of birth, etc.

  • When did the symptoms start?

  • Do you have any preexisting conditions related to this?

  • When did you leave on your trip?

  • When are you returning from your trip?

  • What care have you received already?

They’ll also tell you something very important:

“From this point on, all treatment needs to be approved by us ahead of time in order to be covered. If you choose to get treatment without pre-approval, it may not end up being covered.”

At this point, my claim was filed, I was given a claim number, and I was transferred to a claim coordinator.

The “claims coordinator” is the main point of contact and deals with the following:

  • Communicating with you

  • Sending and receiving documents and paperwork

  • Coordinating with the hospital

  • Approving treatment and expenses

At this point, I voiced my primary concern to the claims coordinator:

“This hospital does not speak English, none of the paperwork is in English, and they want me to pay cash to them NOW because they have no clue how to deal with international insurance.”

THANK GOD for this next part…

The claims coordinator told me the following:

They use a company called “Trails of Indochina,” which essentially finds a local Indonesian insurance company to funnel billing through, meaning I wouldn’t have to deal with any billing, paying out of pocket, reimbursement, etc.

So, from the hospital's perspective, they only need to work and communicate with a local insurance company they know rather than worry about dealing with a major foreign entity.

That is hugely helpful to the hospital, but it ended up causing some major issues for the following reasons:

  • Every time there was a step taken, it had to go from the hospital to me to my insurance company to the intermediary company to the local insurance company, back to the hospital… 😑

  • Every document and test result I received from the hospital needed to be submitted in Indonesian, translated, reviewed by insurance staff and doctors, translated back to Indonesian, and relayed to the hospital.

In other words, the already difficult communication barrier got ten times worse.

So here’s what I did:

I asked for a direct phone number for the claims coordinator team from my credit card insurance company.

This way, whenever a document was sent, etc., I could call and try to expedite the process without needing to go through the long series of phone prompts and transfers.

This worked great throughout the process, and I highly recommend doing so if you find yourself in my shoes.

But at this point, things got… a bit more complicated… because of these three factors that I mentioned earlier:

  1. I was in a lot of pain. And I really wanted to get my damn appendix out of me.

  2. I couldn’t proceed with surgery until it was pre-approved.

  3. Getting pre-approval meant sending a million forms to a million different people in time zones across the world.

So now, the waiting began…

…and continued…

………….and continued.

Finally, I got a call from a claims coordinator from the insurance company.

She told me the following:

“I know you’re waiting on our approval right now. But I want to tell you that you should proceed as medically necessary. If the hospital says you need the surgery now, get it now. We will pay for it.”

I was shocked, to be honest.

The insurance company basically said, “Don’t worry about the fine print - I’m telling you right now that you’re good to go, and we’ve got your back. Just do it.”

Not only was this strange coming from an insurance company, but it took a HUGE load off of my shoulders.

You can take a couple of things away from this phone call:

  • There is wiggle room with these companies. They are humans and can interact with you in a very human way.

  • Sometimes, cases are so clear-cut (like appendicitis, which is straightforward and cannot really be caused by preexisting conditions) that you can proceed with treatment with a higher degree of confidence in having it approved.

At this point, I told the hospital I was ready to proceed.

I signed some more papers, talked with the surgeon, and encountered an interesting question about “which god I worship.”

This was required for pre-surgery prayers…

…anyway, I went into surgery first thing in the morning.

Part 5: The end

Despite finishing the surgery and knowing the insurance was taken care of, this part was, unfortunately, the worst.

The hospital was not equipped with proper pain medication, and I spent a LOT of time in a LOT of pain immediately following the surgery.

My room was not clean or sanitized, and the windows could not close, which made for a really uncomfortable, unsanitary, loud, and buggy experience.

After a couple more days in the hospital, I desperately wanted to get out…

But the hospital had other plans. You see, they still didn’t fully understand how western insurance works.

They physically prevented me from leaving the property (despite being medically cleared to do so by the surgeon) until they had CASH in their hands…

At this point, I called my insurance company for the last time.

I explained the situation, and they told me the following (this is in their words):

  • “We have approved your surgery. Don’t worry about payment even if the hospital is worried. It’s all settled.”

  • “We’ve sent the Guarantee of Payment (a document that officially confirms that the hospital will be paid) to the intermediary company. When the hospital receives it, it should put their mind at ease regarding getting paid.”

  • You can leave. Don’t let them stop you. You do not need to give them anything.”

Again, ALL of these things put my mind at ease and helped me figure out how to move forward.

So, I told the hospital staff the following:

“My company has sent over a Guarantee of Payment. This is proof that money is on the way, and you will be paid. I am leaving in an hour one way or the other, so do what you need to do now to feel okay about that.”

And sure enough, they accepted the Guarantee of Payment and allowed me to leave.

The main takeaway here is the following:

The insurance company was my lifeline. I called them so many times, and each call resulted in me having a complete understanding of the situation, where I stood, and how I could proceed. If you find yourself in this situation, do not hesitate to call them as many times as you need to.

Part 6: A few final points

In the days following the surgery, the insurance company called me multiple times to check in on me and gather the remaining forms needed for the claim.

I have to say… they were absolutely amazing to work with despite the hospital being HORRIBLE to work with.

The insurance team was super proactive, knowledgeable about working with medical teams in this part of the world, and very clear about what to do.

In the end, this surgery, testing, medicine, supplies, inpatient care, and everything cost over $5,000.

And I know we joke a lot about credit cards and talk about how to save money on the ridiculous annual fee of the Platinum card by using credits, etc…

But this experience solidified something for me:

I will NEVER get rid of this card. This intangible benefit is just too valuable, and the annual fee seems insignificant in comparison.

It was huge that the insurance team found a way to reimburse a tiny hospital in Indonesia without me having to pay out of pocket. The support they provided me and the weight they took off my shoulders were invaluable.

But I also want to give a shoutout to someone else…

Just a few hours before the pain started, I was in a tiny coffee shop at 6:30am in Bandung.

In that coffee shop, a guy approached me and asked, “Hey, are you Mike from Daily Drop?”

It was Rob, an Indonesian man who has lived in Bandung his whole life and reads Daily Drop… which is just wicked cool… and such a crazy coincidence.

Anyway, we struck up a conversation about Hyatt and Marriott (Rob is top-tier elite with both programs, a.k.a. my kind of guy), exchanged contact info, and decided to make plans to hang out.

When I ended up in the hospital later that same day, Rob was AMAZING and brought me a massive case of bottled water (which the hospital did not have, believe it or not), some fresh fruit, and other delicious food.

We ended up hanging out a few times, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that gesture of kindness and support during a difficult time.

I’m so thankful to have this community. And getting to meet you people all around the world is always a pleasure.

So thank you, Rob. I can’t wait to keep exchanging travel stories and hotel strategies with you next time. 😉

Wrapping up

Wow, that was a DOOZY. 

I’m exhausted from writing and reliving this, as I’m sure you are from reading it.

But unfortunately, you still have some newsletter to read… so go back and finish it now. I won’t take no for an answer.

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