One shot and I’m out half a month’s rent. The other needle pierced my skin and I lost the other half. Welcome to the world of travel clinics, which exploit your fears just enough to empty your wallet.
Honestly, I partly blame myself. As the weeks until our Korea departure flew by, Chickpea and I started panicking about getting our vaccinations updated. Korea is no disease hotbed, but we were determined to try as much crazy food as we could while in the country (and a few neighboring Asian countries as well) and a little typhoid sure puts the damper on international traveling. So, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and Googled “Travel Clinic.”
The first entry was for a Maryland-based company called Passport Health. They have an office in Tampa close to my former job, so without looking at any other options, we booked an appointment for the next week. Why would I look anywhere else? We had no health insurance (and even if we did, most insurance companies will not pay for vaccinations related to travel) and I figured most doctor offices would need to order our special vaccines from a place like Passport Health . I knew it was a specialty clinic, and so probably a bit more expensive, but I was woefully unprepared for how much more expensive. Not to mention the infuriating, and factually incorrect, introductory visit.
The day before our appointment, I looked up travel advisories from the Center of Disease Control and my trusty Lonely Planet Korea book. After a talk with Chickpea, we decided on vaccines to protect us from typhoid, hepatitis A & B and meningitis. We would also ask about the need for Japanese encephalitis.
The next day, after work, we walked into the travel clinic office and the receptionist quickly took us back to one of the nurses. We sat down in her office and she pulled out a thick book with “Korea” and our names on the front. She opened the first page.
“So, let’s start with malaria,” she said, and so began our hour of useless health information.
“Well, by the looks of this map, Korea is full of malaria,” she continued while pulling up a website I’d never heard of before. “We have kits that can last you the entire year.”
Unfortunately for this nurse’s commission, I checked maps from the CDC and World Health Organization the night before. Except for a tiny part of rural countryside near the border of North Korea, South Korea is virtually free of malaria. I, of course, told this the woman who immediately disregarded it.
“So, do you just need a six month supply then?” she asked innocently.
“No, there is no malaria danger where we are going,” I said again, “but if there happens to be some epidemic, we’ll have health insurance and we’ll buy the malaria pills in Korea.”
“Oh, well how about for the first couple months?”
“No. We’ll have somebody there to help us if we need it.”
“Oh, well when are you going to meet them? Maybe you need some pills for the first 30 days?”
“Uh … no.”
“How about just a small pack for six days just to be safe?”
This is how the next hour went: the nurse going over each and every possible medical emergency.
“How about rabies? You never know when you’ll get bit by a dog.” (We’ll take the chance, especially considering if you do get bit and have the vaccine, you still need to go to the hospital for follow-up shots.)
“Oh, you need [insert vaccine here], because you never know how far a hospital is. And, well, you know those people …”
“Last but not least, we have a small kit here for preventing traveler’s diarrhea.”
Besides trying to induce paranoia, this nurse also seemed to think South Korea’s position in world health was equivalent to Haiti.
Eventually, we made her understand we were only getting vaccines for typhoid, meningitis, and Hep A & B. We thanked her and went out to pay. Our total? Just about $400.
Roughly, it broke down like this: $60 for the typhoid vaccine pills, $130 for the meningitis, $180 for one shot of Twinrix (Hep A & B vaccine) and a $45 consultation fee.
But that wasn’t all.
We needed two more shots of Twinrix at $180 a pop over the next month, and we’d have to pay the $45 consultation fee every time.
Are you keeping track? That’s close to $900.
Needless to say, we didn’t go back. And once we got home from that awful visit, Chickpea did her own Internet search and — wallah — found out the local county health clinic also does many vaccines, including typhoid. Their cost? Only $60 a shot. Passport Health had overcharged us by about 300%.
Ouch. Hearing that was almost as painful as the two shots in my arm.