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British holidaymakers still confused over EHIC benefits

03 April 2014

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will be 10 years old in June 2014 but according to new research from Gocompare.com, confusion still reigns over the benefits it offers.

In addition, researchers from Gocompare.com have found official looking web services charging consumers up to £24.99 per person to apply for an EHIC which can be obtained from the NHS for free.

An EHIC is one of the most important things you can pack for a trip to Europe. However, thousands of consumers risk coming home with a large medical bill or other losses due to confusion over the cover it provides. 6% of respondents to the Gocompare.com poll believe that having an EHIC means they don’t need travel insurance when holidaying in Europe.

  • Over half (54%) of UK consumers believe that an EHIC entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe.
  • 5% believe an EHIC entitles them to free medical care anywhere in the world.
  • Nearly one in 10 (8%) believe that having an EHIC means they can be flown home from Europe by air ambulance for free.
  • 13% of UK adults have never heard of a European Health Insurance Card or EHIC.
  • 6% believe that having an EHIC means they don’t need travel insurance for trips to Europe.

13% of Brits have never heard of an EHIC or a European Health Insurance Card, but around 1 in 10 (9%) UK travellers have successfully used an EHIC to get free or reduced cost medical treatment whilst in Europe. However, 4% have tried to use an EHIC abroad and found it wasn’t of any use in the clinic or hospital they attended.

The cost for medical treatment abroad can be painfully high and if the treatment isn’t covered by an EHIC the final bill could be huge. These are some real life examples:

  • One night in a ward of a private Spanish hospital - £800
  • Treatment for a broken ankle in Tenerife - £7,000
  • Treatment for multiple injuries after being hit by a car in Greece - £21,000

These were all real claims fortunately paid out under travel insurance policies, so the insurer picked up the bills. Without insurance many travellers may end up having to pay for their own expensive accidents.

EHIC Facts and Fiction

54% of UK holiday makers believe than an EHIC entitles them to free medical care anywhere in Europe. 6% believe the card entitles them to free medical care worldwide.

The facts – An EHIC entitles the bearer to the same level of state medical care provided to eligible nationals of the 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% of the cost reimbursed later. The patient may also be expected to contribute to the cost of staying in a hospital overnight.

Also, in the event of an emergency, there is no guarantee that an ambulance will take you to a state hospital for treatment and many of the smaller hospitals and clinics found in holiday resorts are privately run. If you go or are taken to a privately run clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be of any benefit at all.

Medical repatriation

Nearly 1 in 10 (9%) of Brits believe that having an EHIC means that if they are seriously ill they can be flown home from Europe by air ambulance for free.

In really serious circumstances the patient may have to be transferred to a UK hospital under medical supervision. Again, this is outside of the protection provided by an EHIC but it is usually covered by a good travel insurance policy. 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.

The facts – An EHIC does not cover the cost of medical repatriation from any destination and the Government does not pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home following accidents.

Tourists who need medical treatment and repatriation risk incurring huge bills if they don’t have adequate travel insurance. Without travel insurance individuals or their families have to find the money to pay for such services themselves.

Obtaining an EHIC

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.

Travellers aged over 16 can apply for an EHIC free of charge at https://www.ehic.org.uk and the process is quite straightforward. However, some official looking websites found via search engines charge as much as £24.99 to manage your EHIC application.

Caroline Lloyd, travel insurance spokesperson at Gocompare.com, commented: “Despite being around for 10 years there’s still a lot of confusion about what benefits an EHIC can and can’t provide. Whilst it is an essential piece of plastic to take to Europe, only travel insurance can give you the assurance that if disaster strikes you can pay for your treatment wherever you are or be transferred back to a UK hospital if appropriate for your care.

“Having an EHIC can help you to access free or, more likely, discounted emergency medical services whilst abroad but it’s not a guarantee that you won’t have to pay anything, and it certainly won’t be any help if you need medical repatriation to the UK which can cost thousands of pounds.

“Having an EHIC may also mean that you don’t have to claim on your travel insurance and pay an excess for minor injuries and some insurers will even waive the policy excess for medical claims where you’ve used your EHIC but where it doesn’t cover the full cost of your treatment.

“Holidaymakers should always arrange suitable travel insurance to ensure they’re covered for medical treatment and repatriation if necessary. £1m of medical cover should be adequate for most situations but some policies offer £5m or more as standard. For minor accidents and illnesses, and as long as you go to a state run hospital or healthcare centre, an EHIC could save you having to pay out too much, or anything, for treatment. Look at it as complementing your own travel insurance rather than replacing it otherwise you may end up with a hefty medical bill.”


Notes to editors:

On 17th March  2014, Vision Critical conducted an online survey among 2,005 randomly selected British adults who are Springboard UK panelists. The margin of error—which measures sampling variability—is +/- 2.2%. The results have been statistically weighted according to the most current education, age, gender and regional data to ensure samples representative of the entire adult population of United Kingdom. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding.