How To Get Your Sick College Kid Home Quick

For a small annual membership fee, you can call on an air ambulance.

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Last Halloween, Nancy Mason got a call from her daughter Annelise Poda, a sophomore at the University of Southern California. The news: Annelise had broken her ankle skateboarding and was at an emergency room in Los Angeles in need of surgery. Mason, a physician, wanted to rush to her side—but was at home near San Francisco, 360 miles away. She had just decided to hop in the car and take off when she remembered she could call on MedjetAssist instead. Less than 12 hours later, a transport team, including a nurse, picked up Annelise at the LA medical center and flew her by private air ambulance home to Stanford Hospital. Cost to the family: Their yearly $350 family membership fee.

Most college kids never suffer an injury or illness severe enough to require weeks or months of care. But when they do, a growing number are relying on services like MedjetAssist to get home. Like auto clubs that dispatch air ambulances instead of tow trucks, the plans charge members a flat annual fee and, in return, promise free assistance when it's needed—in this case, medical transportation between hospitals. MedjetAssist's collegiate plan ranges from $195 to cover one kid studying domestically to $595 for a student spending a year overseas. By contrast, a traditional air ambulance can cost from $6,000 to $25,000 out of pocket within the States, depending on the length of the flight and the care involved. A transport from overseas might top $100,000.

The flights are typically on small jets equipped like mobile intensive care units, complete with IV pumps, intubation equipment, cardiac monitors, and oxygen. Escorts often include a registered nurse and an EMT, and a doctor might fly with critically ill patients. A service similar to MedjetAssist, Air Ambulance Card, starts at $195 and runs $495 for a year abroad. AIG Travel Guard's Annual MedEvac plan, which costs $185 for the year, is designed for travelers but works for students, too. It includes both medical transportation and secondary medical insurance that pays costs not covered by members' primary health policy.

Policies that bring sick college kids home aren't new. Many schools require students who spend a semester abroad to buy special health insurance, which often includes emergency medical transportation. But students who simply travel away to college have been on their own. Most health policies hold the line at treatment; when medical transportation is allowed, it's usually for travel deemed medically necessary, to get services not offered wherever the student is. Even so, that would mean a move to the closest capable hospital—but not a ticket home.

That difference can be a big one, as Eileen Shirk learned during her last year at Penn State in 2001. During a spring break trip to Acapulco, she and some friends were badly injured in a car accident. Shirk, whose family had a MedjetAssist membership, was on a private jet home to Toledo, Ohio, within two days. One of her friends, on the other hand, landed in a hospital in Texas, 1,000 miles from his family in Chicago.

With Air Ambulance Card and MedjetAssist, parents can specify which hospital their child goes to, anywhere in the world, as long as a doctor at that hospital agrees to admit him. The AIG plan requires approval from a doctor on AIG's medical staff as well as that of the patient's attending physician and a doctor at the destination hospital. In all three cases, it doesn't matter whether there's a terrific, closer option. "I was very impressed that they'd move her here—they didn't ask if I wanted them to take her to Austin instead of Little Rock," says Jack Griebel, a Little Rock physician who called Air Ambulance Card last year about his daughter, who had suffered complications following an appendectomy while a sophomore at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Ultimately, he decided his daughter didn't need to be moved.

Not all college health professionals are sold on the services, since the need for intensive care is rare and most schools prefer to keep injured or ill students on campus and engaged in their studies. But Mason and Griebel both fully intend to continue their memberships. "It's hard when you can't do anything for yourself and you're at school. Your friends don't really understand," says Annelise Poda. There are times, even in college, when you just need Mom.