Every year around this time the TV news or magazine programmes send reporters to airports to interview people departing on holiday about holiday insurance, or foreign currency, or how much they know about the EHIC card. Surveys usually show that awareness of EHIC is fairly high. People are aware that EHIC is some sort of reciprocal healthcare agreement within the countries of the EEA, and are also aware that they should really get round to applying for one. One of the most common beliefs though is that EHIC is a card giving free healthcare for British people in Europe but this really isn’t the case.
Healthcare Systems in Europe
Part of the confusion over what EHIC gets you is that we’re broadly unaware of how healthcare systems operate in other parts of Europe. To be fair, the ins and outs of visiting the doctor in France or getting a prescription in Greece are irrelevant until you’re in the situation of needing healthcare. Many of us fall into the trap of assuming that because we don’t pay to see the doctor or have an X-ray in the UK, then other people in Europe don’t either. The truth is that every country in Europe has its own way of doing things – some will ask patients admitted to hospital to pay a “board and lodging£ charge, others will ask you to pay a percentage of your treatment costs. There is no simple situation across the board and unless you’re an expert on European state healthcare, you won’t know all the rules.
So what does EHIC get me?
The idea behind EHIC is that when you’re a cardholder, you are treated in the same way as a resident of the country concerned when you need to access state healthcare. If Norwegians have to pay to see a local GP you will too, and if a Spanish person has a three month wait for a hospital appointment, EHIC won’t let you skip the queue. EHIC will allow you to access the state healthcare system only, and will never pay for you to be treated in a private hospital. Quality of healthcare varies considerably across the continent, and although standards in many countries are extremely high, in other countries facilities and staff training may be well below what you are used to in the NHS. Top-up travel insurance is therefore an essential – not only will it allow you to access private hospitals in some situations should you choose to do so, it will also cover the cost of getting you home or other costs associated with falling ill.
Claiming Back Under EHIC
There’s also a misconception that the UK government will refund any cots which you are expected to pay under the EHIC system. This isn’t the case. In some countries such as France you pay the full amount upfront and then claim back the cost locally, but the NHS will not send refunds for healthcare treatment. If costs start to escalate save all invoices and receipts as you might be able to claim any charges back under your travel insurance policy.