British tourists and travellers could lose free healthcare in Europe under proposals from the European Union during recent Brexit negotiations in Brussels.
Proposals by the European Commission state that the UK will leave the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) system after the 29th March 2019 withdrawal date. EHIC is an agreement by which foreign hospitals accept that the cost of treatment for any accident will be paid by the NHS. Tourists without the EHIC currently must cover their own costs, often running into thousands of pounds or alternatively take out private insurance.
"For Britons travelling on the continent, a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) – which affords travellers state provided necessary medical treatment in the host country – has long been a default item to take on holiday. They cover temporary stays in European Economic Area (EEA) countries, plus Switzerland, and over 27 million people have one, according to the Department of Health. Patients are effectively treated as a resident of the country in question, either at a reduced cost or for free by the state healthcare system, with the home nation picking up the tab. However, the future of this benefit has been thrown into doubt by the vote to leave the European Union. Nothing happened to the EHIC when Article 50 was triggered, as it merely starts the process of leaving the European Union." David Davis, Former Brexit Negotiations Secretary
One of the major factors to decide whether the EHIC will remain available to British citizens is whether there is a separation from the EEA as the card is not an EU initiative. Countries such as Norway and Iceland, who are EEA members but not a part of the EU and accept the EHIC, a possible model for the UK.
While there has been speculation that the UK could follow the Swiss model, Gemma Sonfield, head of travel insurance at comparison website comparethemarket.com stated:
"One of the Leave campaign's major arguments centred on immigration and border control. As the EEA allows for the free movement of people around the EU's 28 member states, it is also feasible that Brexit will sever ties with the EEA as well, in which case the EHIC would likely cease to exist."
Ms Sonfield also highlighted Switzerland as an exeption that is neither an EU or EEA member yet accepts the EHIC as part of the single market.
“There has been speculation as to whether the UK could follow the Swiss model. “The card provides such good health protection that some insurers now insist you have to have an EHIC to take out a policy, and many will even waive your excess if you do have one.”
The knock on effect to insurance costs could be significant in the event that the EHIC becomes unavailable for British citizens. Insurers would have to take into consideration that they would be footing the bill for all medical treatment, instead of having a proportion dealt with through the EHIC system.
A goverment spokesperson stated:
"The rights and entitlements that will apply following the UK’s exit are subject to the wider negotiation on our future relationship with the EU. At every step of these negotiations we will work to ensure the best possible outcome for the people of the United Kingdom, including those travelling to and living in EU countries."