Steve and Shelly Smith's dream vacation turned to heartache when the unthinkable happened off the coast of Puerto Rico.
"My parents were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and they were going on a cruise with Royal Caribbean," said Taryn Smith, the couple’s daughter who lives in Berkeley.
"My mother had a medical emergency that she ultimately did not live through," Taryn said. The loss devastated the family, but that grief turned to anger a few weeks later when a credit card bill arrived in the mail. Royal Caribbean charged Shelly Smith’s credit card more than $6,000 for medical care.
"We weren’t trying to not pay for these services. We just wanted to pay through a reasonable channel, which would be health insurance," Taryn Smith said.
Royal Caribbean initially refused to wait on insurance to pay for the long list of medical expenses. In an email to Taryn Smith, an employee with the cruise line wrote, "The ship increased speed in order to reach San Juan eight hours ahead of schedule. This cost many thousands of dollars which we did not pass on to you."
Royal Caribbean never responded to repeated media requests for comment, but Taryn Smith says the company ultimately reversed all medical charges, four months after she first contacted them.
"I’m propelled to speak out now because I wonder how often this happens," Smith said.
The charges maxed out Shelly Smith’s credit card. The company, BBVA, closed the account and sent it to collections. After calls from the media, BBVA not only stopped collection efforts, but also gave the family $1,500 for additional costs associated with Shelly’s death.
An estimated 23 million passengers are expected to take a cruise in 2015, but because there is no central database, it is difficult to find out how many illnesses, injuries or deaths happen at sea. Lawmakers such as recently retired U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) have been working to change that.
"In spite of evidence that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings, and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny that it has a problem," said Rockefeller during a senate hearing last year. Rockefeller was advocating for legislation dubbed The Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which would set new standards and improve safety measures for cruise lines. The bill never made it to a vote last year, but similar legislation is now working its way through Congress.
Until there’s a law protecting passengers, travel agents say travelers need to plan for the unexpected. "The most important thing for a traveler to do is to make sure that their personal insurance covers them while they’re traveling, and most don’t," said travel agent Tama Holve. "Take a policy specific to that trip that will cover those expenses."
Before Royal Caribbean decided to void its medical charges, Steven Smith submitted a claim with his health insurance company for the medical care provided to his wife. But the Smith family is still waiting to hear back if their insurance company would have even agreed to pay for the expenses since the medical care was provided outside the United States.
Taryn Smith wishes her parents had looked into purchasing a separate insurance policy for their trip before setting out for what was supposed to be a celebratory cruise. "Be prepared for the worst," Taryn Smith said, "which is ironic when you’re getting ready to have the best time of your life."