January 2021 Update – the EHIC has now been replaced with an equivalent, which can be applied for now. Please read our GHIC card blog to find out more.
Here in the UK, Europe is our favourite continent to visit. A 2017 survey found that nine of the 10 most popular holiday destinations for British travellers are in Europe. No surprise that Italy, France, and Spain took the top three spots.
It’s not hard to understand why; European destinations are just a short flight away and they offer such variety. From snow-capped mountains to golden beaches, fascinating cities, and delicious cuisines. It’s clear we love travelling to Europe, so it’s important to ensure we do so with confidence. Having a valid EHIC as well as suitable European travel insurance in place when we are there is key. Especially so if you have a pre-existing medical condition or disability.
In saying that, with a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), isn’t travel insurance surplus to requirements? True, there are some areas where there is an overlap. However, to answer in full, let’s first look at what an EHIC is and what it gives you.
What is the European Health Insurance Card?
EHICs enable UK residents to access public healthcare facilities while visiting participating countries. Although this may mean that healthcare is free, in some locations a fee may be charged. Don’t always take it for granted that healthcare will be complimentary! However, bills will be far lower that they would be otherwise. For this reason alone, an EHIC is still an essential item to take when travelling to the majority of European destinations.
Which countries does EHIC cover?
Introduced in 2004, the EHIC applies to countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland, should you need it. The EEA includes countries in the European Union (EU), as well as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Countries and principalities not included are: Turkey, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Monaco, Vatican City and San Marino.
Will the EHIC apply after Brexit?
There is an agreement in place during the transition period after the UK leaves the EU. That means until 31 December 2020, the EHIC scheme will continue to involve the UK. In other words, it will remain valid both for UK residents travelling to participating countries and vice-versa. Currently, negotiations on the future of the relationship between Britain and the EU, including reciprocal medical arrangements, are underway.
If no deal is agreed, the EHIC will likely be unavailable to UK residents following the 31st December 2020. At this point, all existing EHICs held in the UK will expire, regardless of the expiration date on the card.
The only real exception will be cross-border travel. What this means is that anyone travelling prior to that date with a valid EHIC will be entitled to its benefits for the duration of that trip, even if they are not due to return until after that date.
We hold out hope that the EHIC, or an equivalent, will be available to UK travellers going forward. In saying that, and as we will see below, an EHIC is limited in scope and no substitute for travel insurance.
What does the EHIC cover?
The EHIC only covers medical care that is available as statutory in the country in question. What is actually covered depends on where you are. It is also important to note that statutory health care systems vary from country to country. It is unlikely you will access the care you would expect on the NHS; few European countries offer a comparable range of free healthcare.
Medical treatment for pre-existing health conditions and routine maternity care are also covered by the EHIC. This is as long as you haven’t travelled to Europe just to receive treatment or give birth.
Essentially, the EHIC allows access to state-provided treatment in the same way as residents of the country. As such, it is important to be aware that you may be expected to pay a contribution as residents of the country would.
What does it not cover?
The EHIC does not provide the same level of cover as travel insurance. For example, private medical treatment is not covered. If admitted to a private hospital, you would be liable to pay for it yourself. However, travel insurance can cover this – although, only if state medical facilities are unavailable.
Needless to say, private medical care can be very expensive! In 2015 a British couple travelling with just EHICs were left with a £2,400 medical bill after one of them received treatment for pneumonia in a private hospital in Spain. In an emergency, an ambulance may not take you to a state-funded hospital. If a private one is closer or better able to provide care, that is where it will take you.
The EHIC also does not cover associated costs, such as mountain rescue. If you have an accident while skiing that required an air ambulance, you would be left with the bill. It’s worth noting that many hospitals in and around ski resorts are private too.
Finally, the other important expense not covered by the EHIC is repatriation. The EHIC does not cover transport home if you were not able to travel back as planned. According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), an air ambulance back to the UK from Spain can cost £25,000.
How does travel insurance compare to the EHIC?
Unlike the EHIC, travel insurance can provide cover for private medical treatment, associated costs, and repatriation back to the UK. When you consider the relatively low cost of a travel insurance policy, it’s not difficult to see how a small outlay can save you from potentially enormous expenses.
Having said that, not all travel insurance policies offer the same level of cover. At Free Spirit, our specialist travel insurance is specially designed for people of any age who have existing medical conditions and disabilities and includes all of the elements of cover mentioned above, plus much more.
We can provide cover for emergency medical care and any associated costs, repatriation to your home country, and aftercare at home following a stay in hospital abroad. Even the loss or damage to medical aids, prescribed medications, and travel documents.
One of the most important aspects of our specialist travel insurance is cancellation cover, which kicks in as soon as your policy is confirmed*. Our cancellation cover means that you won’t be left out of pocket if you needed to cancel your trip due to your health, and can extend to your travelling companions too if they’re included on your policy with you.
* Please note, if you purchase an annual multi-trip policy, cancellation cover begins on the date you choose to start your policy.
Simply get in touch with us to find out more about our travel insurance for people of any age with medical conditions and disabilities. You can apply for a quote online or speak to one of our friendly, UK-based team on 02392 419 080.