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Relying on your EHIC to provide free medical treatment for a skiing accident this winter could put your finances on a slippery slope

17 November 2015

50% of UK holidaymakers expect an EHIC to provide free emergency medical treatment abroad and 7% expect it to pay for repatriation to a UK hospital

As winter approaches, British skiers and snowboarders will be making sure they have all the equipment they need for a great holiday in the snow.

However, many winter holidaymakers hitting the slopes this year may be missing the most important thing of all, a travel insurance policy with cover for winter sports.

According to research from Gocompare.com travel insurance, 26% of Brits who’ve been on holiday abroad in the last five years didn’t always have travel insurance cover arranged and nearly 1 in 10 (9%) said they never did. However, if any of those people have an accident while skiing, snowboarding or even on their way to the resort, they may find their bank balance goes downhill fast if they need assistance from mountain rescue, medical attention, or a medical repatriation flight home. According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), in 2014 UK insurers paid out over £206m* in medical costs incurred by policyholders on holiday abroad.

Winter sports safety expert Dr Mike Langran, who runs the website ski-injury.com, suggests that although snowboarding leads to relatively few injuries compared to other active pursuits, such as horse riding and mountain biking, there are still around five injuries per 1,000 snowboarders per day**. To put that into perspective, that means if you’re a snowboarder sitting on a plane bound for the Alps with 249 other snowboarders, when you fly back after six days of snowboarding, seven of you could have had an accident on the slopes for which they needed medical attention.

But with single trip travel cover for two snowboarders starting at under £13***, why do nearly 10% of people decide to risk the financial consequences of travelling without insurance?

Part of the problem is that half of Brits overestimate the value of the European Health Insurance Card, or EHIC. Half 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 5% believe that entitlement extends to anywhere in the world. Alarmingly, 7% 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 (nearly 1 in 10 UK adults who’ve holidayed abroad in the last five years have used one to get free or reduced-cost medical treatment), its benefits are more limited than many people think. So it’s worrying that 5% 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% 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 ski resorts are private. If you end up at a privately run clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be accepted.

Mountain rescue and medical repatriation

When it comes to mountain rescue or medical repatriation, the EHIC is of no use at all. An EHIC does not cover the cost of being brought down a mountain by a mountain rescue team or flown home under medical supervision from any destination. The UK Government generally does not pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home unless there are very unusual circumstances.

Tom Lewis, travel insurance spokesperson at Gocompare.com, commented: “Although the EHIC has been around for more than a decade, half of British holidaymakers still don’t understand what benefits it can and can’t provide. There’s no doubt it’s a very useful piece of kit to take on a skiing holiday in Europe, but it’s no substitute for having appropriate travel insurance with winter sports cover included.

“Having an EHIC can help you to access free or, more likely, discounted emergency medical services whilst in Europe, but it’s not a guarantee that you won’t have to pay anything, and it certainly won’t be of any help if a serious accident leaves you needing medical repatriation to the UK. Such trips with medical care on board can cost thousands.

“EHICs are useful, but winter holidaymakers should always arrange suitable travel insurance with winter sports cover to ensure they’re protected for medical treatment and medical repatriation if necessary. And an EHIC won’t cover losing your skis or pay out if there’s no snow in your resort, whereas many travel insurance policies with winter cover will. Look at an EHIC as complementing your travel insurance rather than replacing it or you could end up with a mountain of a medical bill.”

Gocompare.com had created a guide on the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)

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Notes to editors:

On 17 March 2015, Bilendi conducted an online survey among 1,820 randomly selected British adults who are Maximiles UK panelists and have holidayed abroad.  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.

*Source - ABI UK Insurance Key Facts 2015

**Source – www.ski-injury.com

*** 7 days travel insurance cover for a 25 year old couple with no pre-existing medical conditions travelling to Europe in January 2016 with Winter Sports cover included = £12.72 for an Economy policy with Big Blue Cover. Quote obtained on 21 October 2015.