One in ten 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, according to research by Gocompare.com travel insurance.
However, although it is a ‘must-have' piece of kit for a European trip, the research revealed that the vast majority of UK holidaymakers over-estimate the benefits it can provide, with 70% believing it entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe and 6% believing it will get them free emergency medical treatment anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, although an EHIC is extremely useful, can save you money on emergency medical expenses and even reduce or cancel out your excess on some travel insurance medical claims, its benefits are not as comprehensive as many people think. For example, 7% of holidaymakers responding to the survey believe that an EHIC would entitle them to medical repatriation by air ambulance if they were seriously ill or injured in Europe. In reality, you will need a good travel insurance policy or generous friends to pay the several thousand euros it would cost to bring you home under medical supervision.
In research carried out before the EU referendum, 23% of UK holidaymakers felt worried that a Brexit would mean they would lose valuable medical protection provided by the European Health Insurance Card.
The EHIC is an initiative of the European Economic Area (EEA) rather than the European Union (EU), so whether or not UK citizens will keep this reciprocal benefit depends on how deep the Brexit goes. Regardless, nothing will change until the Article 50 negotiations to separate the UK from the EU are concluded, which could be two years or more.
Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are members of the EEA but not the EU, and all three accept the EHIC so the UK could possibly 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.
The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is free to most UK residents. However, residents of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not eligible for EHICs. An EHIC entitles the bearer to the same level of state medical care provided to eligible nationals of the EEA country they're travelling in. This means that the treatment may be provided for free, or at a reduced cost, in all EEA countries and Switzerland. The EEA includes all 27 members of the European Union (EU) plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. The EHIC is not accepted in Turkey as it is not a member of the EU or the EEA.
However, 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.
When it comes to medical repatriation, the EHIC is of no use at all. An EHIC does not cover the cost of being flown home under medical supervision from any destination and the government generally does not pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home unless there are very unusual circumstances.
In addition, there are still plenty of online companies charging anything from £14.99 to £35.00 to ‘process' applications for an EHIC, despite it being a very straightforward ten-minute job on the official government website at ehic.org.uk
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