Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Nepali Government Sets New Rules for Rescue Operations in the Himalaya

One of the stories we've been following closely over the past few weeks is the recent report from the Nepali government regarding widespread fraud involving fake rescues in the mountains. Essentially, a number of trekking companies have been working with helicopter operators and hospitals to send clients in for medical treatment, even when they didn't need it. The clients would rack up enormous bills for the helicopter flights and medical examinations, which would then be passed on to their adventure travel insurance providers to pay. The situation has gotten so bad that insurance companies threatened to stop covering travelers heading to Nepal and in response, the government there has issued some new guidelines that it hopes will alleviate the situation.

A September 1 deadline was set by some of the insurance companies for the Nepali Ministry of Tourism to sort out this issue. Last weekend, the government handed down an interim solution while it looks for a long-term, more permanent process for handling rescue operations in the Himalaya. Moving forward, all helicopter companies, hospitals, and trekking companies, and insurance providers will be required to submit details of rescue flights, medical treatment, and insurance bills to the Tourist Search and Rescue Committee, Tourist Police and Department of Tourism.

Apparently, the new Tourist Search and Rescue Committee will fall under the DoT for oversight and management. The members of that committee will be tasked with monitor rescue operations and look for potential fraud, stamping out the so-called "fake rescues" in order to prevent travelers and insurance companies from getting bilked out of money.

The original plan was to have the police oversee all emergency rescues and evacuations, but that idea was later dropped. Law enforcement officials already have plenty of work to do and aren't necessarily trained to handle search and rescue operations. Instead, those procedures will still be run by the private sector that has been handling them so far, although Nepali officials say that the individuals who have been running the fake rescue scam have been all-but eliminated.

Some new rules that have come about including allowing helicopters to only transport one patient at a time, so as to eliminate double or triple billing insurers. Hospitals are also required to assess patients as they arrive and estimate the costs of their medical bills, with those estimates getting passed on to the trekking and mountaineering companies who are guiding the individual. Helicopter operators will also be required to share details on how many flights they make, where and when rescues take place, and how much was charged as well.

It remains to be seen whether or not these new rules will have any impact. I remain dubious as to whether or not the culprits behind the fake rescue scams have actually been removed from the equation so quickly. Nepal has a long history of talking tough on these kinds of issues, and even announcing harsh new regulations, only to have them fall by the wayside and go unenforced. Perhaps this time will be different, but for now I'd stay extra vigilant during any visits to the country.

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