Many Brits heading off on holiday to Europe rely too heavily on an European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Whilst very useful, it may not cover all you need and certainly does not replace the need for travel insurance.
Some 10% of UK adults who’ve been abroad in the last five years have used an EHIC to get free or reduced cost medical treatment whilst travelling in Europe.
Worryingly though, according to new research from GoCompare Travel, many UK holidaymakers over-estimate the benefits it can provide.
Almost 70% of UK holidaymakers believe it entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe and 6% believe it will get them free emergency medical treatment anywhere in the World.
It is absolutely right that an EHIC is extremely useful and can save you money on emergency medical expenses.
That said, its benefits are not as comprehensive as many people think.
And to be clear, an EHIC is not an alternative to having proper travel insurance, it complements it.
What are the EHIC benefits?
The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is free to most UK residents.
Residents of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not eligible for EHICs.
Parents and guardians can apply for EHICs for those aged under 16 and each member of a travel party must have their own EHIC.
An EHIC entitles the bearer to the same level of state medical care provided to eligible nationals of the European Economic Area (EEA) country they’re travelling in.
It is important to understand this point as the provision of state care varies from country to country.
Healthcare and treatment may not be free and you should not expect to always be treated as you would if you visited your NHS doctor or hospital.
Not all EU countries pay the full cost of medical treatment as you’d expect from the NHS.
For example, in France a patient may be expected to pay for a consultation with a doctor but will have up to 70% of the cost reimbursed later. The patient may also be expected to contribute to the cost of staying in a hospital overnight.
Where can you use an EHIC?
An EHIC will be useful in all EEA countries including Switzerland.
The EEA includes all 27 members of the European Union (EU) plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.
Do note that an EHIC is not accepted in Turkey. As Turkey is not a member of the EU or the EEA anyone needing medical treatment while on holiday there will have to pay for it themselves or claim on their travel insurance.
Even if you’re travelling in a country where there’s free or discounted emergency health care, there are no guarantees that in the event of an accident an ambulance will take you to a state hospital for emergency treatment.
Many of the smaller hospitals and clinics found in holiday resorts around Europe are private. If you end up at a privately run clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be accepted for any treatments.
Will an EHIC get you home?
Whilst many believe that an EHIC entitles them to medical repatriation by air ambulance if they were seriously ill or injured in Europe this is not the case.
In reality you will need a good travel insurance policy or friends or family to pay the several thousand Euros it would cost to bring you home under medical supervision.
The government generally doesn’t pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home unless there are very unusual circumstances.
The costs of a medical repatriation can be significant. According to one insurer, the cost of flying one seriously ill British holidaymaker home from the Canary Islands by jet air ambulance was nearly £23,000.
In most cases the costs will be covered by a reasonable travel insurance policy but without that cover, friends and family may end up footing the bill to get you home.
Will Brexit affect the EHIC?
The EHIC is an initiative of the European Economic Area (EEA), not the European Union (EU) so whether or not UK citizens will keep this reciprocal benefit depends on how deep the Brexit goes.
Whatever the final decision, nothing will change until the Article 50 negotiations to separate the UK from the EU are concluded in 2019 at the earliest.
Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are members of the EEA but not the EU and all three accept the EHIC so it may be that the UK can take this approach.
Switzerland is neither a member of the EU or the EEA but still accepts the EHIC as part of the single market.
Also, the UK already has reciprocal deals with a number of countries, including Australia, Israel and Russia, under which visitors can receive free urgent treatment.
So even if it was no longer part of the EHIC initiative, it might agree similar deals with EU countries
Is an EHIC free?
You don’t need to pay for an EHIC application service. It’s a very straightforward, 10 minute application on the official government website: https://www.ehic.org.uk
Unfortunately there are several online companies charging up to £35.00 to help you apply for a free EHIC.
Amanda Bathroy, insurance editor at GoCompare Travel commented: “An EHIC can help you to get free or discounted emergency medical services in state run clinics and hospitals whilst on trips to Europe, but it’s not a guarantee that you won’t have to pay anything.
“Having an EHIC may mean that you don’t have to claim on your travel insurance for minor injuries in some circumstances, and some insurers will waive the policy excess for medical claims where you’ve used your EHIC but where it doesn’t cover the full cost of your treatment.
“But holidaymakers should always arrange suitable travel insurance to ensure they’re covered for all emergency medical treatment and medical repatriation if necessary.
“An EHIC complements your travel insurance but it certainly doesn’t replace it.”
Diane Ray, MoneyHighStreet.com comments: “When travelling in Europe and indeed other countries within the EAA that accept an EHIC, it is very important that you take the time to get this card and make sure you take it with you. This applies to Switzerland as well.
“Be clear though, as Amanda points out, an EHIC complements your travel insurance, it does not replace it.
“The type of travel insurance cover you need will be depend on your holiday or trip profile e.g. do you have one trip per year or multiple, do you stay away for a few days or long periods, do you get involved in such as skiing or ‘extreme’ sports.
“Take some time to consider the cover you need and then get some quotes before buying your policy.
As with all insurance, it’s important that you get the cover you need at the best possible price. Don’t just be guided by the cheapest travel insurance, it may not include the cover you need.”