Business travelers – and their employers – are in a constant state of risk as they crisscross the globe, whether to neighboring states or distant latitudes. Since predicting a disaster or anticipating a heart attack or car accident while traveling is virtually impossible, companies and employees need more than ever to be prepared for the unexpected.

Emergencies occur in a split second; handling them can mean weeks of confusion and expense. Global emergency services were once considered a luxury, but this is no longer so. Benefits advisors can help employers prepare for the unexpected by setting up a solid global emergency services program.

It is important for benefits advisors to understand the coverage gaps that face business travelers who venture overseas. Few American health insurance companies or health maintenance organizations pay for vital, high-cost services such as international repatriations or medical evacuations. (Keep in mind that air ambulance transport alone can cost more than $100,000.)

Some credit cards and travel plans say they offer assistance, but it is usually extremely marginal – the patient or family is almost always responsible for actual medical and travel expenses, generally with payment arranged through their own credit cards.

Assistance plans also vary in their range of protection and method of administration. Companies look to insurance agents and brokers for guidance in plan management, and since there are no industry standards in place, it is important that agents and brokers shop around and compare programs. Here are some questions that should routinely be asked:

- Are emergency medical evacuations arranged and paid for?

- Who actually owns the organization? Is an insurance company selling the benefit product?

- Does the assistance company have its own 24/7 operations center?

- Will a foreign assistance company understand American medical expectations?

- Are there financial chargebacks or access fees for services? Who is responsible for the payment?

- Are there internal caps on expenses or limits on coverage?

- Are there exclusions for pre-existing conditions? For adventure sports or hazardous hobbies? For specific geographies or alcohol-related incidents?

- How responsive is the provider? When an operations number is called, who answers the phone? Do the operators have medical credentials? Can they handle multilingual inquiries with first-hand knowledge of different world cultures?

- Does the assistance include basic services for finding or replacing lost prescriptions, luggage and passports? Money transfer and legal and interpreter referrals?

An employer can provide group-rated protection for every employee – and employees’ families, too – by bundling global emergency medical services packages with group life, health or disability programs.

In the last year alone, my emergency medical services company has dealt with a Middle East evacuation, terrorist bombings, the most active hurricane season on record, and ongoing fears about the avian flu. Yet with companies striving to remain competitive in the global economy, business travel is at the highest level in 5 years. Setting up a global emergency medical services program can empower employers to get the job done.