The Nepali government says that it is cracking down on a long-running scam amongst helicopter companies, trekking operators, and hospitals that has potentially bilked millions of dollars out of insurance companies over the years. This latest corruption scandal –– one of many to come out of the Himalayan country in recent years –– has occurred with such frequency that many foreign visitors have tales to share of how they were caught up in the scheme or narrowly avoided getting scammed themselves.
A new government probe shows that at least three helicopter companies, four hospitals, and eight trekking organizations are being investigated for their roles in a “fake rescue” scheme that sees travelers picked up by alleged rescue helicopters, flown to nearby hospitals, and submitted to a battery of medical examinations and tests. Only, those tests are largely unnecessary and only serve to run up an expensive hospital bill, which is then paid by travel insurance companies. Trekkers in Nepal are required to have travel insurance prior to setting out, making them easy targets for the scam. According to government reports on this recent investigation, more than 36 trekking companies were under review, along with ten helicopter operators, and four hospitals.
Essentially, the scam goes like this: a trekker headed to Everest Base Camp –– or some other Himalayan destination –– may tell their guide that they are experiencing a headache or some other mild discomfort. The guide tells them that they shouldn’t take any chances at that perhaps they should be checked out, as trekking at high altitude can be dangerous. They recommend that the trekkers get airlifted to a hospital to be on the safe side. A helicopter is then called in to pick them up, the travelers are then flown to a hospital where they are checked out by doctors, often running expensive tests that aren’t necessarily needed. The entire operation is then charged to the trekker’s travel insurance company, and the money is shared by the trekking company, helicopter operators, and the hospital itself.
Last week, Gear Junkie posted a story that goes into great detail about how all of this goes down, including stories from travelers who have had their passports taken and held while they are examined in the hospital. Apparently, the scam has gotten so prevalent there that dozens of trekkers have filed complaints, while many more simply go along with the scheme not even realizing that it is an insurance scam. It has gotten so bad, that there are even some reports that suggest trekking companies could feed their clients tainted food in order to get them sick, requiring an evacuation.
While Nepal is an amazing country that I think every adventurer should have on their bucket list, it is stories like these that make it difficult to recommend at times. The corruption has been taken to an art form there and quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that government officials were getting a kickback from this scam so they’ll look the other way too. The problem is that the scam has been so overused now that it is starting to cut into the number of tourists who are visiting, which threatens the country’s income. That means it has to be addressed at long last. Hopefully this means things will start to improve moving forward, but the cynical side of me says a new scam is likely to emerge.
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