EHIC is a Europe wide system which allows UK residents who have applied for their cards in advance to access healthcare across 32 countries on the same basis as residents of the country concerned. One common misconception is that EHIC will give UK residents free healthcare overseas as we do not pay to see doctors or go to hospital in the UK. This isn’t actually the case, and many countries do have a system of patient contributions towards costs. There are however some countries where you can get free medical care using your EHIC, providing certain conditions are met.
As our closest European neighbour, the Republic of Ireland has a strong reciprocal health agreement with the UK. Even without your EHIC paperwork, you will be treated by an Irish GP or in a hospital if you can show your British passport. In order to get free medical care, you have to see a doctor who us registered the Primary Care Reimbursement Scheme, so if in doubt, check.
Greece is a popular holiday destination, and one where many British visitors need healthcare each year. Be aware that there is a “two tier” healthcare system in Greece. If you see a doctor or go to a hospital which is part of the National Primary Healthcare Network, this is free of charge. If however you see a private doctor who is not part of the Network, you will be expected to make a partial contribution towards the cost of treatment. You won’t be able to claim any of these charges back.
There have been a number of problems in Spain with UK visitors trying to use EHIC to get state treatment and being refused, or being asked to pay. The confusion comes down to the numerous different types of hospitals and doctors in Spain. Only state provided healthcare is free, and you won’t be charged to see a GP or go to hospital. Prescriptions are charged for, even if you are entitled to free prescriptions in the UK. Always be very clear that you wish to use your EHIC cover and be taken to a state GP or hospital – it’s not unknown for private doctors or hospitals to have arrangements with hotels and even taxi companies to get patients referred to them. Don’t believe any healthcare provider who tells you that you will be able to claim back upfront charges which you are asked to pay.
Italy also offers free healthcare, as long as you see a doctor registered under the SSN. Malta, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and The Netherlands also provide emergency treatment free to EHIC holders, as long as you see a state doctor and can produce your paperwork when asked to do so.
There are a couple of important exclusions to the “free treatment” rules which travellers should be aware of. Elective surgery, cosmetic surgery and travelling with the prime purpose of accessing healthcare overseas is never covered under EHIC rules. Ante-natal care is covered, but visiting a country specifically to give birth is not covered by EHIC either.