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Relying on an EHIC to cover your winter holiday mishaps could leave you with a mountain of medical bills

28 November 2016

70% of UK holidaymakers wrongly expect an EHIC to provide free emergency medical treatment in Europe and 7% expect it to pay for an air ambulance to fly them back to the UK

Europe's slopes will soon be welcoming thousands of British winter sports fans as skiers and snowboarders head to the mountains for their annual fix of schussing, slides and spins.

However, winter holidaymakers who choose to travel with just a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for medical protection, risk running up life-changing medical bills for typical skiing and snowboarding injuries.

According to research from Gocompare.com Travel Insurance, 26% of Brits who had travelled abroad in the last five years admitted they didn't always have travel insurance cover 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 themselves nursing a very big bill if they need medical attention, assistance from mountain rescue, or an air ambulance flight home.

According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), in 2015 UK insurers paid out £1m a day to travel insurance policyholders with claims for medical costs totalling £365m. The average medical expense claim was £1,200 but some accidents can cost a lot more. The following are real-life examples of winter sports medical claims paid out last season.**

Accident 1 - A man was accidentally hit by a snowboard whilst skiing in France and suffered serious bruising. He was evacuated off the mountain by helicopter running up a bill of £5,425.

Accident 2 - A woman had a nasty fall while skiing in Austria, tearing her anterior and interior cruciate ligaments and needing surgery to repair them. Her bill for treatment was £9,439.

Accident 3 - A man suffered a spinal injury in a fall whilst skiing in France. He was airlifted off the mountain to the resort clinic and later transferred to a bigger hospital. The total bill was £8,978.

70% of British holidaymakers overestimate the value of the EHIC, believing that carrying one entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe and a further 6% believe that entitlement extends to anywhere in the world. 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, its benefits are more limited than many people think and it's a concern 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 should 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 you will be taken 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 private clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be accepted at all.

Mountain rescue and medical repatriation

If you're unfortunate enough to need mountain rescue or medical repatriation, the EHIC provides no cover at all. An EHIC does not cover the cost of being brought down a mountain by a mountain rescue team or helicopter and it doesn't cover the cost of being flown home under medical supervision from any destination. The UK Government generally does not pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home but may do so if there are very unusual circumstances, such as terrorism.

Alex Edwards, travel insurance spokesperson at Gocompare.com, commented: "Most British holidaymakers still don't understand what benefits an EHIC 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 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. Being flown home under medical supervision can cost tens of thousands of pounds.

"Skiers and snowboarders, and even those who are just going along for the trip, should always arrange suitable travel insurance to ensure they're protected for medical treatment and medical repatriation if necessary. Other advantages of having proper winter sports cover includes protection against losing your skis, your lift pass and other equipment and some even offer compensation if there's no snow in your resort.

"With single trip travel cover for two skiers starting from £13***, an EHIC should complement your travel insurance cover rather than replace it."

For more information on the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), visit Gocompare.com's guide to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)
And for more information on winter sports insurance, visit Gocompare.com’s dedicated guide on winter sports travel insurance.


Notes to editors:

*On the 9th June 2016, Bilendi conducted an online survey among 1429 randomly selected British adults who have been on holiday abroad in the last five years and are Maximiles 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.

**Source - ABI June 2016

*** 7 days travel insurance cover for a 25 year old couple with no pre-existing medical conditions travelling to France in January 2017 with Winter Sports cover included = £13 for a Super Saver policy with Travelinsurance.co.uk. Quote obtained on 18 November 2016.