When health care needs interrupt your vacation

father and sun paddle boarding

While my husband and I were visiting his parents in the Florida Keys last March, we ran into an all-too-common travel situation: an unexpected medical emergency. This was a relatively minor situation - an ear infection the day before we were scheduled to fly home - but it still needed to be dealt with.

After accidentally paying for the treatment with a regular card instead of our HSA card, we were able to get the expenses reimbursed quickly and easily. Once again, our HSA came to the rescue when we needed it most.

Your HSA can be a lifesaver on vacation - and can even help fund your travel expenses. Here are some examples of how you can use your HSA while travelling.

Medical tourism

If you're traveling abroad for a medical procedure, you can pay for the service with your HSA. However, those services have to fall under traditional HSA guidelines. In the US, for example, you can't pay for elective cosmetic surgery with your HSA. That means you can't do it abroad either.

If a doctor recommends a certain procedure, such as corrective surgery for a deviated septum, you can use your HSA to have the work done in a foreign country. In general, if you could use your HSA to pay for it in America, you can use your HSA to pay for it in another country.

Your HSA will also cover the travel costs associated with medical tourism, but only up to a certain point. Lodging for a patient caps at $50 a night, and meals aren't included. If the patient requires another adult to be with them during the operation, their lodging will also be covered. That usually only applies to parents traveling with their children or mentally unfit adults who needs supervision.

If you're getting medical care in another country, only transportation expenses related to that care will be reimbursed. For example, if you're in Mexico having a root canal and decide to see some ancient ruins while you're there, you can't pay for a tour guide with your HSA. You'll be assessed a 20% penalty plus income tax if you accidentally use your HSA for non-qualified expenses.

Getting medical expenses reimbursed doesn't just apply if you go abroad for medical care. It also applies if you're on vacation and hurt yourself accidentally. If you're in Rome and sprain your ankle while walking the Spanish Steps, you can use your HSA card to pay for a visit to an Italian doctor. You can't get any travel or lodging expenses reimbursed in this case, since you left the country for non-medical reasons, but it's better than nothing.

How to get reimbursed

Keep all related bills and receipts in a safe place until you're ready to file for reimbursement. When you file for reimbursement, include itemized bills from doctor's offices, hotel receipts, plane tickets and anything else related to your stay.

Make copies of your statements if you're mailing forms for reimbursement, since it can be difficult to get copies sent from a foreign country when the originals are lost.

If the reimbursement is completely or partially denied, ask your HSA provider why. It may be that you need to get your primary care doctor to prove that your condition was medically necessary and urgent.

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