I Have the EHIC - Do I Still Need Travel Insurance?
By Jean Andrews
What would happen if you arrived at your bougainvillea-covered holiday villa in France and found that a family emergency meant you had to drop everything and return home immediately? Suppose you arrived in Malaga to find that your luggage was lost? What if you loaded the family into the car and took them on the ferry to France and were involved in a bad car accident resulting in serious injuries? What if things were much, much worse... and there were fatalities? Which would you prefer to have - the EHIC or private travel insurance?

You may be surprised to learn that the European Health Insurance Card (EPIC) would not be of much help in any of the above scenarios. It would not cover costs involved in cancellation or curtailment of your trip. It would not cover for your lost luggage. As long as it was a participating country, it would cover some or all of your medical treatment at a state hospital (but not a private one). It would not cover repatriation costs. It also would not cover repatriating the body of you or a loved one in the event that your luck had run out! These unexpected costs would be your problem!

All of the above are typical of the coverage you could expect from a good travel insurance policy. The EHIC has other limitations: For instance, it might not provide coverage for many of the treatments you are used to getting for free on the NHS. This is where your travel insurance policy would kick in - to cover those extra costs (subject to the terms and conditions of your particular policy).

The EHIC basically entitles you to free, or lower cost necessary treatment in participating countries. At the time of writing these are: Switzerland and the EEA (European Economic Area). To clarify, the EEA is comprised of all EU (European Union) countries plus Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. Switzerland has a separate agreement with EU. For up-to-date information about the countries you plan to visit and to see whether the EHIC is valid you should check with the Department of Health.

Do you have an old E111 stashed away in your document drawer? If so, you'll need to discard it and apply for the new EHIC. The E111 was phased out in early 2006. The new EHIC is provided free by the Department of Health and the NHS Prescription Pricing Authority.
Unfortunately, it means you'll have yet another plastic card to put in your wallet along with all the credit and debit cards, loyalty cards and your plastic drivers license. The card is normally valid for three to five years. It is not automatically available to any UK resident, so if in doubt you'll need to check for eligibility. The card contains personal information such as your name, birth date and National Insurance number.

Many major touristy areas in Europe have private hospitals in the immediate vicinity and if you end up there your EHIC would be of no use. If you're taken to a state hospital the EHIC should cover for any necessary medical treatment due to accident or illness during your trip. Should you be injured or unconscious you would not have any opportunity to choose where you are taken!

Note that neither your EHIC nor your private travel insurance will provide cover if you travel abroad with the intention of obtaining medical treatment - perhaps to jump the NHS queue in the UK. However, there may be exceptions, or the EHIC rules may change for certain conditions, so check with your GP or the Department of Health for updates.

There are other countries and territories around the world which have reciprocal agreements with the UK for state-provided healthcare. How do you get an EHIC? Application forms are available at the post office or online. Note that it is your responsibility to check the accuracy of the information on your card after you receive it. If you need to use it in an emergency and the information is different to that on your passport it could cause problems or even refusal of treatment.

Once you have that shiny new EHIC it can be tempting to think you're off the hook as far as purchasing travel insurance. However, the bottom line is that the EHIC should never be used as a substitute for purchasing a travel insurance policy. If you don't believe it, go to the Department of Health website and look for yourself. They clearly advocate taking out private travel insurance along with your EHIC!

Jean Andrews is a freelance writer living in the UK. She regularly contributes articles for TIA Ltd who offer travel insurance at great prices online.

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