It’s no surprise that breaking my neck and left arm in a car accident in late April 2015 cost a lot of money. Like, a lot. We’re talking around 450,000 CAD as of the end of last year.

And I’m not even 100% recovered yet. This month alone, I am spending 977 CAD on my rehabilitation.

Rest assured that I sleep very well at night knowing that everyone involved in my health care has been paid (either largely by my insurance company or myself) and that I am NOT going into any kind of debt because of my unwelcome, unforeseen injuries. While I felt that the aftermath of my accident was physically and emotionally stressful, I am glad that it was the least bit financially worrisome for me.

Unfortunately, not many are prepared to tackle the financial hit an injury and a disability can bring. No one wants to think about it, but any of us can become seriously sick or injured. Hey, one day, I was climbing Death Valley National Park’s highest mountain and two days later, I found myself with a halo brace on my head and a splint on my left arm.

The bill

I would have written this article sooner if I didn’t inadvertently click “Don’t Save” when Excel asked me if I wanted to save my spreadsheet. A few hours of work last month were lost just like that. I had to compile all my health care expenses again! Luckily I had most of my expenses already stored on Wave, a free personal and small business finance tool that my husband and I discovered last month (it’s not as great as Mint – no pie charts!, but I am not required to link my bank and credit card accounts on it).

Alright, let’s get to it. Some background to those unfamiliar with my story and/or my blog: Originally from Canada, I got into a car accident in California, USA while I was on my honeymoon. I had to get a neck brace called a halo, have a couple of surgeries on my neck and my arm, and spend an entire month in the hospital there. All of this simply translates to: WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE, I WOULD HAVE BEEN ROYALLY SCREWED.

When I was discharged from the hospital, I could not go home to Canada because it was not safe for me to fly with the halo brace. So I spent two months in California with my aunt’s family until my halo was removed. I flew back home to Canada only to get another revision spinal surgery. Fast-forward to seven and a half months (yes, you’ve read that right) since the accident and to me having worn three different kinds of neck braces through it all. Now, this translates to: 1) LUCKILY, I LIVE IN ONTARIO AND HAVE PROVINCIAL HEALTH INSURANCE (OHIP) TO COVER MY HOSPITAL STAY AND SURGERY; 2) I HAVE EXTENDED HEALTH INSURANCE FROM MY EMPLOYER TO COVER ALL OTHER RANDOM COSTS.

(I’m currently on Week 6 since I got my neck brace off and I’ve been loving every second of life. This is also why I haven’t been writing here as much as I would like!)

Below is a summary of my actual health care expenses since the day of my accident until the end of last year, a total of eight months.

In light pink are those expenses that I first paid myself and later got reimbursed by my travel insurance (not all were, as you will see below). The yellow expenses require a bit more explaining: the costs are actually in USD, but my insurance received a “discount,” if you will, from my providers as they were all part of a preferred network of medical service providers. Apparently this kind of re-pricing is a common practice in the insurance industry. For example, I had a bill totalling 1,155 USD that was re-priced to 800 USD. With today’s unfavourable USD to CAD exchange rate, 800 USD is equivalent to around 1,163 CAD – approximately the original price of 1,155 USD. For that reason, I did not bother to convert the yellow expenses into CAD.
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Click to enlarge

*Earlier in this article, I said that my health care costs were around 450,000 CAD. The extra 8,000 CAD I added to my total above is the bare minimum cost I assigned to my hospital stay, surgery, scans, and follow-up visits with my neurosurgeon in Ontario, Canada. I don’t know how much it was exactly as we don’t receive any receipts from that. (Okay, I guess I know that my Aspen collar cost $60.)

Gathering all the receipts, claim letters, and insurance statements, I determined that 99% of my health care costs were covered by insurance bodies (travel, extended, provincial). I paid only $6,198.43 out of my own pocket.

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How you can be financially prepared too

Travel insurance: Don’t EVER leave home without it!

Planning a trip outside the country? Going to the US even for just a weekend? Make sure you have travel insurance.

Young travellers may think they don’t need insurance because they’re young and healthy. But accidents do happen. While walking along a beach on a Caribbean island, a Canadian tourist in her early 20s had an accident that seriously damaged her spine. Her family had to raise funds to pay for her medical evacuation. (Source: Government of Canada)

I’m not saying that you should buy the most comprehensive insurance package out there, but make sure it is adequate. Read some worthwhile information here about obtaining travel insurance.

My travel insurance policy was included with my employer’s extended health benefits package and covered:

  • 100% of ambulance and in-patient hospital charges up to a 2,000,000 CAD maximum
  • Only the initial emergency medical treatment and one follow-up physician visit

Okay, the 2,000,000 CAD policy maximum was too much but I couldn’t change it to another plan. I also had emergency travel insurance from my credit card. (Despite all the paperwork I sent them, they didn’t pay for anything because my primary insurer paid for nearly everything.) I just did a quick search on how much a similar travel insurance plan would cost if I bought it myself (using the same details for our trip) – only $5 to $8 per day with Blue Cross and RBC Insurance, for example. That’s an extremely small price to pay to have peace of mind (I know that’s what all insurance companies say – but hey, it’s true). It’s extremely easy to buy a plan online – I did it a few years ago for my husband and it took less than 20 minutes.

I also registered my husband with my travel insurance when we got married, allowing him to completely avoid approximately 15,000 CAD worth of health care costs at the emergency room. (Thank goodness he didn’t sustain any injuries.)

While travelling, have your insurance’s emergency phone number and your policy details on hand. I had ours in this pocket in my suitcase. Because I was completely out of it until Day 2 after the accident, we didn’t start contacting our insurance until then. Soon enough, right?

The only loophole in my experience was that my travel insurance refused to pay my medical expenses in California while I was not allowed to go back to Canada. I was sort of in limbo. My policy was only for the initial medical emergency, plus one follow-up visit. The initial medical emergency practically ended when I set foot out of the hospital. And the follow-up visit didn’t really count since it was already covered by my surgeons’ insurance plan. But $6,198.43 out of my own pocket, including my two months in California, wasn’t all that bad. Multiple people advised me to get a lawyer but I really didn’t want to bother.

Rant No. 1: While they fulfilled their obligations to me, the travel insurance company was neither fun nor easy to deal with. They contracted another company to deal with out-of-country calls like mine, so we had to communicate our every inquiry to this company, and then they would relay it to the “real” company. THESE ARE EMERGENCY SITUATIONS THEY’RE DEALING WITH HERE, WHY HAVE A MIDDLE MAN?!? For example, it was the night before my scheduled arm surgery and we still didn’t know if the insurance company had approved it or not! (This reminds me, I have to complete their customer satisfaction survey… fun!)

Stay organized

Keep EVERYTHING. Keep all your receipts, emails, letters, medical records, X-rays, CT scans… everything pertaining to your injury. I know I could do better in terms of organizing my paperwork… but meh.

I am organized enough to have folders, at least! I just keep my paperwork, separated by category, all in one place. I also have PDF copies of some important files as well as papers I send to insurance companies (and will never get back) – my digital files need some serious organizing too… but meh. Hehe. But hey, there’s method in my madness.

Stay on top of the paperwork

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A selfie I sent to my husband showing him how I love doing insurance paperwork… not.

Fortunately I am pretty good at dealing with paperwork. This included writing to insurance companies asking them to pay me back, sending my long-term disability benefit company ALL my medical records (it was a hefty package), and making multiple trips to my local post office.

Don’t be afraid to fill out those forms and just get ‘er done. My husband is actually deathly scared of filling out forms of any kind, so I happily obliged to take care of his paperwork too. Let’s just say planning our wedding all by myself prepared me for the worst.

Rant No. 2: I’m actually super pissed at our insurance about this whole paperwork business. So, I was supposed to fill out the “initial paperwork” to get our entire claim (hospital, ambulance, etc.) started – our names, claim numbers, details about the accident, all that fun stuff. They KNEW I was in California that entire summer and wasn’t going home until my halo was removed, but they still sent me the forms in my home in Ontario, Canada. I got home in August with seven different letters telling me to fill out the forms immediately, or no one was going to get paid. LIKE, HELLO?!?! They could have at least told me that I needed to fill out these forms every single time I called them (like every other day that summer?!?), filled them out in California, and not get hassled by the hospital and doctors telling me that my insurance isn’t paying them yet. When I voiced this complain to the insurance company, they said that “they are only allowed to communicate this information by mail.” I call BS on that. I’ve been in contact with them by phone AND by email (with information more sensitive than those forms) and NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT THEM! So when I got home, I had to fill out the forms ASAP and send them back by express mail.

Okay, Dan, breathe. Let’s carry on.

File claims for expenses you have paid for immediately. Don’t wait another month before submitting them! The reimbursement process is extremely long, at least a month or two before you get a cheque or direct deposit back.

Keep track of what you have paid for and if you’ve been paid back (using a spreadsheet would be the easiest way to do this). Check them off one by one when your cheques or deposits come in. Remind your insurance company for charges that have not been reimbursed.

Take advantage of your extended health insurance plan, if you have one

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Doing neck exercises at my physical therapy clinic a week after my neck brace was removed

My journey back to my pre-accident self didn’t end when I got out of the hospital. I required much ongoing treatment, which continues to this day. Physical therapy for my left wrist and hand, shoulders, and neck costs $65 to $95 per session (depending on the clinic – I’m on No. 4 now). Now, going for physical therapy two to three times a week adds up, even though I skipped months at a time depending on how I felt. Thankfully about half of it was covered by my extended health insurance plan from my employer.

While I don’t have all the insurance in the world available to me (we didn’t have car or mortgage insurance – both of which wouldn’t have helped anyway), I am content with having this extended health insurance plan. The only kicker was that because I had billed so many expenses on what they call a “Health Care Spending Account” ($1,000 per year on expenses not covered by the base plan), my credit was completely used up by mid-September. So for three months I covered all my extra expenses (physical therapy, massages, etc.) myself, which leads me to my next point…

Be prepared to pay out of your own pocket

As a 26-year-old young professional, I’ve always been told to save, save, save.

Due to the economy, many millennials are graduating from school without jobs or a steady income, leaving them living paycheck to paycheck each month. In fact, according to our survey, millennials’ top financial stressors were paying bills (45 percent), having a lack of funds (33 percent) and basic cost of living (7 percent). The only true way to overcome these common financial problems is to be financially prepared. (Source: Huffington Post)

Isn’t that so SAD?!? It didn’t take my accident and injury to know how important it is to take the time to learn about managing my money. I’ve been saving about 30% of my gross income ever since I paid off all my student loans (basically a month after graduating in June 2012). They tell you that you need six months’s worth of “rainy day” funds to pay for rent, groceries, etc. in case you lose your job. But what if something happens and you lose your job for a longer period of time? What if you can’t work at all anymore?

A study by Principal Financial Group demonstrated that while 61 percent of financial advisors that they surveyed felt that their clients were in good shape when it comes to planning for how they will turn their retirement savings into income in retirement, only one in five of these advisors (21 percent) rate their clients highly in being ready to deal financially with becoming disabled and unable to work for a living.

In my case, having money set aside for unforeseen events not only helped me in paying for those expenses my insurance didn’t cover, it also gave me the flexibility to pay for big-ticket items that needed to be paid up-front and would later be reimbursed.

Examples:

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Lerman Minerva jacket. Cost: 1,500 USD.
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Non-union bone stimulator. Cost: 5,560 CAD.

Not everyone has 7,700 CAD lying around!!! Most providers, in fact, prefer you to pay them first, and then leave you the trouble of contacting your insurance company for reimbursement. Ugh.

My savings and disability payments (see below) also allowed me to live happily and comfortably despite my injury. And no, I didn’t buy a flat-screen TV. With all my free time away from work, I was able to put myself through French language school, attend cooking classes, and indulge (just a little bit, hehe) in my obsession for cookbooks. And even though my husband is a full-time student (which means he makes $0), we still live within our means. (Thanks for making it so easy, Wave!)

Know your company’s short- and long-term disability benefits

I am so very happy to work for a company with a comprehensive benefits package for its employees. You can also purchase policies yourself if your employer doesn’t offer short- and long-term disability benefits – just do a quick Google search and you’ll find insurance companies that do.

I received my full salary for the first two months following my injury, and then 75% of it for the next 18 weeks (short-term disability period). From thereon, I have been receiving long-term disability payments each month (60% of my salary). However, I realize that not everyone can be so privileged. Did you know that, according to the Council for Disability Awareness, long-term disability lasts 31.2 months, on average? Apparently, over half of all personal bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures are a consequence of disability!

Other avenues to explore if you don’t have disability insurance or savings:

  • Social programs – USA, Canada
  • Workers’ compensation benefits (if you’ve been hurt or gotten sick at work)

Read more on how to prepare for a disability here.

Horror stories

I can’t even begin to imagine dealing with financial issues ON TOP of dealing with my own injury. It was physically and emotionally draining enough as it was. But unfortunately, having to shoulder the entire health care cost from an accident is a reality for many, many people. Here are some examples:

During a short vacation on a Caribbean island, a Canadian developed a severe form of pneumonia and had to be admitted to hospital. His health deteriorated, and he was transferred to intensive care and placed on a breathing machine for more than a month. Without insurance, he had to make arrangements with the hospital to pay a bill that amounted to more than $20,000. (Source: Government of Canada)

Gabrielle had insurance that lapsed three weeks before she was involved in an accident. Her Canadian family had to raise $300,000 over a three-day period to cover the costs of medical treatment and evacuation. Fortunately, she survived, but her family is left with a hefty debt to repay. (Source: Government of Canada)

Alright, this next one is quite long but it really struck a chord with me when I read it a few months ago on a “broken neck support group” page on Facebook (yes, they exist and THEY ARE GREAT!). It took me a while to find it again but here it is:

I have been on here many times before, I originally broke my neck in a horrible car accident in 2001. I had one horribly botched surgery with 3 cadaver bones c4-c6, metal plate and screws in front, hard collar 2 months soft 3, never fused. went for emergency 2nd surgery less than a year later, cadaver bones fracturing crumbling in my spinal canal. had a team of doctors this time. posterior approach, sawed off my spinous process made a paste, bone plugs to fill the unfused areas repair fractures, foramen were never drilled out correctly, nerves were wadded up in my vertebrae they popped out and i guess my whole body jumped on the table, so they decompressed me properly as well too. no collar this time because they did not touch, would not touch the titanium plate in front that was the wrong type wrong screws just a mess.

I was in so much pain for so long, they had to detach muscles, nerves everything was bouncing around trying to find new homes. plus the pressure of the two new added rods and screws on the back left put alot of pressure and pain which i already had in the begining the left!! okay well that never properly fused….a few years ago…it fused a little on its own and the pain was alot better. I refused a 3rd surgery over and over. It was better for years

now alot of pain has come back to my left side it is bone. I am really scared and have not told my primary or anyone, today, i could not even pick up my head and hold it straight when I woke up, just like it used to be, it hurt so bad on the left side. It is starting to go down my left arm again too. I can’t go thru all that pain again and surgery, I can’t afford it and I am getting ready to finally get back to work after some neurological problems. I just can’t do this again. If my neurologist knew or primary, it’s back in the tube again. I have not had an mri this year I told my neuro I was fine, I was then I usually get an annual on my neck. I just don’t know what to do. It has been a few weeks now and getting worse.

Does anyone who has had surgical multiple preferably and understands the pain, financial aspects and down time have any advice for me? I am not looking for sympathy, I can handle the pain, what would someone who has been where I have been, several surgeries lives out on their own, needs to support themselves, cannot afford all the medical bills do if in fact it is another surgery? I can’t afford another co-insurance on an mri with all the stuff so far this year….lol thanks.

I just can’t. I didn’t really have any advice to offer this poor lady since I didn’t have financial issues of my own. 😔

Some crowd-sourcing campaigns:

I guess if all else fails, you can begin paying expenses with credit cards, get a second mortgage, take out a home equity line of credit, withdraw money from your retirement plan, or ask family and friends for assistance. In July last year, I unexpectedly received a sizeable donation from my colleagues at the mine. Their generosity took me completely by surprise and I am forever grateful for their help. I’m still working on writing those 130 thank you cards for when I will likely return to work in two months! 😊

Take action!

I am truly lucky that my disability, although seemingly long, is only temporary. What’s more is that I was financially ready for it – and that was not just luck. It was from careful planning for those unexpected what-if’s in life. Here are some resources you can check out to help plan for the unexpected:

I know you never want accidents to happen. But they can. It happened to me.

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