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The severe limitations of the free EHIC

Written by: Brian Brown
Many people travelling to Europe will be relying on a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), foregoing the purchase of travel insurance. This could prove to be a very costly mistake for some.

The very name implies it is the equivalent to travel insurance, which it really isn’t. EHICs give British citizens the right to access state provided healthcare treatment in EEA countries, and Switzerland.

You have the right to access the same healthcare that a local resident would receive. But this may not be totally free in all countries. For instance, in some countries, the locals have to pay towards the cost of treatment, and British people relying on an EHIC would have to do the same.

The trouble with relying on an EHIC is that it only covers your medical treatment, and only in state healthcare facilities.

As such, these are the other potential benefits you forego in dismissing travel insurance cover, and the costs you face relying solely on an EHIC:

  1. Cancellation or curtailment cover – you have no cover for cancellation of your holiday before you travel, or curtailment of your trip if you have to come home early due to illness or accident. Cancellation is one of the biggest claims costs in travel insurance.
  2. Delayed departure – some airlines will not allow you to travel for a few days if you have a plaster cast fitted – during which time you will have to pay for accommodation and food while you are waiting to come home.
  3. Missed departure – If you are ill and miss your return flight (or want to come home early because of illness) you will have to pay for alternative transport home, for yourself and those who remain in the country with you. In peak holiday season this could prove to be very expensive. You might also have to pay for taxis to the airport because you are too unwell to use public transport.
  4. Delayed baggage – to cover the cost of buying clothing because your suitcase goes astray.
  5. Medical treatment – (abroad) and only in state provided clinics/hospitals. If you are taken ill suddenly you may well be taken to a private hospital, the costs of which will not be covered by the EHIC. But these aren’t typically covered by travel insurance either. It is common for policies to state this. However the insurers accept that sometimes you are taken to a private clinic when you are unable to make a decision for yourself. In those circumstances, they reserve the right to move you to another (i.e. state) hospital whenever they wish.
  6. Additional costs – accommodation, food etc if you have to stay overseas due to illness. If you are hospitalised beyond your expected return date you might have to pay for the extra costs of accommodation for family if they stay in a resort while you are in hospital. You may also need to book more seats for your return – often demanded by airlines if you’re in plaster, or on crutches.
  7. Loss or theft – baggage, money, tickets, passports, driving licences. You get no cover for loss of these items. In particular if you lose your passport you will have to travel to the nearest British Consulate to replace it, which might include overnight accommodation and travel costs.
  8. Countries not in Europe – It might sound unlikely, but there are people who believe an EHIC will cover them in Turkey. But Turkey is not in Europe and is not part of the scheme.

On the flip side, the EHIC can prove to be valuable. Here are three very good reasons to get one:

  1. Pre-existing conditions – are almost always excluded under travel insurance, but EHIC gives you the right to treatment for all conditions, including pre-existing ones.
  2. Surety of treatment – For some people, the EHIC is the only way they can be sure of treatment. Those with illnesses such as cancer and the like might not be able to get travel insurance at all, so EHIC is vital.
  3. Medical claim excess – Travel insurers will often waive any medical claim excess if you have (and use) an EHIC card.

If your EHIC is expiring soon or you want to apply for one, make sure you only ever apply for your free EHIC through the official government website. Any site that tries to charge you a fee for this is a scam.

Lastly, don’t forget to take the EHIC with you. Keep it to hand for when you need it.

Brian Brown is head of insight at independent financial information business, Defaqto

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