The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) has been around for more than 10 years, and nearly one in 10 UK adults who've been abroad have used it to get free or reduced cost medical treatment whilst travelling in Europe.
However, despite it being one of the most useful pieces of plastic you can pack for a European trip, 21 per cent of UK adults who've been abroad have never heard of the EHIC, and many more are confused about the level of protection it provides.
According to new research from Gocompare.com travel insurance, half (50 per cent) of UK adults who've travelled abroad wrongly believe that an EHIC entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe and a further five per cent believe that entitlement extends to the anywhere in the world. And seven per cent believe that if they're taken seriously ill or are badly injured in Europe, an EHIC entitles them to be flown home by air ambulance.
Unfortunately, although an EHIC is extremely useful, and can save you money on medical expenses in Europe, its benefits are more limited than many people think. Worryingly, five per cent of survey respondents felt that having an EHIC meant they didn't need travel insurance for holidays in Europe.
The EHIC facts
- 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
- 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 EEA country they're in. This means that the treatment may be provided for free, or at a reduced cost, in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries including 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 and does not mean you can expect to be treated as you would if you visited your NHS doctor or hospital. Few 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 per cent of the cost reimbursed later. The patient may also be expected to contribute to the cost of staying in a hospital overnight
- There are also no guarantees that an ambulance will take you to a state hospital for emergency treatment, and many of the smaller hospitals and clinics found in holiday resorts are private. If you end up at a privately run clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be accepted.
- 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
- The costs of a medical repatriation can be huge - 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 - but in most cases the costs will be covered by a reasonable travel insurance policy. Without insurance, friends and family may end up footing the bill to get you home.
Only 54 per cent of UK adults who've travelled abroad know that anyone eligible can obtain an EHIC for free. Unfortunately there are still plenty of online companies charging a packet to assist people with their applications, despite it being a very straightforward, 10 minute job.
One such company, which advertises on Google when searching for ‘EHIC', calls itself ‘EHIC' and has the web address http://www.ehicuk.org. It describes itself as an ‘Application Assistance Service' and charges £49.00. Although it complies with marketing regulations by having a link to the free, NHS application service and stating in their terms and conditions that they are a third party and not affiliated with the NHS, they do also make some interesting claims which might suggest that applying for an EHIC is more difficult than it actually is:
"We work with all the European Embassy's (sic) to make sure that UK residents can safely apply for their EHIC online. We employ highly trained consultants to comply with all applicable legislation."- www.ehicuk.org/aboutus
In fact, it only takes a few minutes to apply for a free EHIC on the NHS website.
Caroline Lloyd, travel insurance spokesperson at Gocompare.com, commented: "No one has to pay for an EHIC, so don't be fooled by websites charging good money just to check your spelling and send you a reminder in five years when your EHIC expires. The official NHS website is simple, straightforward and free."