When business travelers disembark at Panama's Tocumen International, they'll be offered a flyer for a one-of-a-kind offer in the region: a promise of free assistance for medical emergencies. Although it sounds too good to be true, the offer is genuine and applies to all visitors arriving via Tocumen from abroad, including Panamanian nationals living overseas, during their first 30 days in the country.
Travelers in need can get access to assistance around the clock in Spanish, English and Portuguese by calling a local emergency hot line number in Panama City or a toll free number from elsewhere in the country. The traveler will be directed to a specific medical facility, and then must simply present a passport when checking in. The date of the entry stamp is used to verify whether the person has been in the country for less than 30 days. To be eligible, a traveler must have entered the country through Tocumen International Airport, Panama's main port of entry. Those arriving by land or sea are not covered.
The program, underwritten by Assicurazioni Generali, a Panama-based insurance firm under contract to the Tourism Authority of Panama, offers to cover travelers' expenses for treatment for accidents or diseases incurred while in the country during the initial 30 days.
Generous coverage, but many exclusions
The program pays for hospitalization and other medical expenses up to US$7,000 and an equal amount for medical transportation within the country. If the patient requires an international transfer, up to US$40,000 in expenditures is covered. Other categories of coverage include assistance for hotel expenses incurred during recuperation, or after discharge from a hospital, if needed, and assistance for payment of pharmaceutical, dental and legal expenses. If the incident results in death, the body will be repatriated to the victim's country of origin.
The list of limitations and exclusions is extensive. Pre-existing medical conditions, including pregnancy, are exempted, as are injuries caused by extreme sports, proven drunkenness, the use of illegal drugs, or if injuries were sustained during the commission of a crime. Suicide, attempted suicide and accidents that can be proven to have been the fault of the insured are among other exclusions.
A showcase for Panamanian medical expertise
"In Panama we'll take care of you as if you were at home, arranging medical plans with suitable physicians along with the best medical treatment," proclaims the government's website. Officials believe that the program will become an important incentive for visitation to the country. They also say the free service, showcasing the country's internationally respected medical services infrastructure, will help to promote Panama as a destination for medical tourism. "Those who take advantage of the health services in the country will see that Panama is an ideal place for medical tourism," says Salomón Shamah, director of the country's tourism authority.
A model, or one-of-a-kind?
What remains to be seen is whether the Panamanian government, once it has reviewed the costs and benefits of the program during its first two years, will renew the contract with the insurance firm to keep the program. Meanwhile, other countries are certainly analyzing the merits of Panama's inventive initiative and deciding whether or not to follow suit with similar programs of their own.
A note on this program: If visitors arriving at the international airport are not presented with a program brochure by an immigration official, they should request one at the nearby tourism information kiosk.