Traveling abroad? This important warning could prevent a medical nightmare

ATLANTA — When you go to the hospital with an emergency here in the states, the law says doctors must treat you, even if you're not a citizen.

But that's not the case when you step off a plane in another country.

Douglasville resident Angela Underwood learned this first hand, when her family went to Mexico in June of 2015.

"Over money, my child could have died," Underwood told Investigative Reporter Nicole Carr. Her teenaged son Josh fell ill at their Playa Del Carmen resort.

They went to Hospiten Rivera Maya, a private hospital recommended by resorts for clean facilities, English-speaking staff, and care comparable to what you’d receive at home.

An American woman says a Mexican hospital required $5K cash to see her son who fell ill on vacation.

Just for Josh to be seen, Underwood needed $5,000. Once the doctor diagnosed appendicitis, Underwood says a hospital employee said it would be another $20,000 upfront to operate.

“And so, I looked at her and I was like, so you're telling me that if I can't come up with this money, you're going to let my child die,” Underwood recalled.

She said after a scramble, Josh’s grandfather put the bill on a credit card. The hospital billed it as a cash advance.


An Indianapolis family claimed the same private hospital chain, Hospiten, refused to release their premature baby until they came up with $30,000.

As the delivery and intensive care treatment costs continued to rise, "..they were threatening to put him literally on the streets-a baby in an incubator complete strong-arm tactics." Grandfather Larry Ralph said.

A crowd-sourced fundraiser helped get the baby home.

Hospiten did not respond to our requests for an interview.

[READ: Emergency care warnings from U.S. embassies]

We went undercover in Mexico to see if tourists have the same problem for minor health issues. At the same hospital that initially refused Josh's surgery, Carr described symptoms of a urinary tract infection. Before they would take a urine sample, they wanted her credit card.

"In your case, it would be a deposit. It’s a hold only. It’s a verification of your credit card of 1,500 U.S. dollars,” an employee told Carr.

Some travelers who fall ill abroad report being hit with shocking medical bills upfront.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, hospitals expect upfront payment.

That's not what happened to Georgian Dale Strickland when she fell and broke her arm in Paris.
"the very second I hit, I knew that something was wrong," Strickland told Channel 2.

Her daughter called the embassy, who took over her care.

“The American embassy sent a wonderful surgeon,  who did my surgery on Friday,” Strickland said. She didn't have to pay up front.

“The thing that's crazy about travel outside the united states, is it's different in every single country,” Channel 2 Consumer Advisor Clark Howard told Carr.

Clark said the U.S. Embassy may intervene, but international health care providers usually want you to pay before you are treated.

“They don’t trust the U.S.-based insurer is going to pay them, and so you can be left high and dry, and have to lay out all the money, and hope that insurance will do a reimbursement.”

Clark says it’s important to check the fine print on travel insurance policies. He also says there are handful of credit cards that afford you automatic trip insurance if you buy travel on that card.