I must confess to being slightly amused over recent expressions, that UK Travel Consumers will lose their right to access either free or low cost medical treatment when travelling in the European Union, following Brexit! Whilst various article writers now opine on the possible loss of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), this is a subject that I have been commenting upon since January 2016! In the months before the EU Referendum, I spent a great deal of time on the air-waves, television and press, highlighting the pros and cons of either staying or leaving the EU insofar as it affected travel consumers. I provided commentary on what is now known as a 'Hard Brexit', the 'Norway' option and remaining in the EU; indeed there were many occasions when broadcasters openly accused me of either being involved in 'Project Fear' or delivering a commentary that was as 'clear as mud'. My amusement extends to the fact that I heard no politician, no other consumer commentator making the running on this important consumer issue, but now it seems they are coming out of the woodwork!
Fast-forward to the present day and beyond the rhetoric of the this post-referendum period; what are the issues at stake?
In the first instance it is important to explain what the EHIC card does. The EHIC card replaced the E-111 document which allowed for reciprocal medical care when you travelled abroad. The replacement created a much broader scheme because it not only provides cover for EU citizens but also to those citizens within the European economic area. The EHIC card provides access to low-cost or free medical treatment when travelling in these areas; consumers could be forgiven for thinking, why is this so important?
Personal experience will answer that question! Last year my wife & I were travelling in France, when she became very seriously ill. In the middle of the night I had to rush her to the emergency department of the local hospital, whereupon she was seen immediately by the doctors on duty. At the time of arrival at the hospital I was asked to produce her identity, her travel insurance and EHIC card. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to bring those with me and duly presented them. Whilst my wife received emergency treatment, I dealt with the administration. My wife was then admitted to hospital, underwent various scans and tests and had to be transferred to another hospital for an operation. Several days later she was discharged but had to return over the following 4 weeks to ensure that she was recovering well. Toward the end of her treatment, we had to deal with the finalisation of the costs of her treatment and the hospital administrator duly presented all of the invoices. The cost for my wife's treatment was £6,500! However, because she held an EHIC card, £6,200 of the cost was covered by that scheme; the remaining £300 was paid without question by the travel Insurer!
The debate since early 2016 has centred on what we as consumers would stand to lose or retain if the UK should vote to leave. The arguments I put forward essentially stated that if we were to 'remain' then there would be no change to our rights or access to healthcare via the EHIC card. If we chose to 'leave' but maintain membership of the single market, with all the rights attached, like the 'Norway' option, then there would be no change to rights or again accessing healthcare via the EHIC card. However, if the country voted to 'leave' and decided to exit the single market and cut off all connections with the EU, in other words, a 'Hard Brexit', then consumers would potentially lose access to all rights and reciprocal healthcare via the EHIC card; this summary is as clear today as it was in the period before the Referendum!
But what does it mean for travel consumers if indeed the UK heads toward a 'Hard Brexit'?
In the first instance, at this moment in time, UK Consumers should remember that the UK is still a member of the EU and that they have rights as EU Citizens which includes access to EHIC healthcare when travelling in the EU.
I recommend that if you already have an EHIC card, check its expiry date and make sure that it runs until 29 March 2019, the date when apparently the UK leaves the EU. If your expiry date is due to expire during the course of this year or if you do not have an EHIC card, then make sure that you apply for a replacement or new card (remember, this card is free - do not pay for one!).
If we do crash out of the EU and UK Consumers lose rights and access to EHIC healthcare, then you will need to make sure that you are adequately covered via travel insurance (you should always carry travel insurance to cover shortfalls as we did above).
This then raises the question of travel insurance in the post-Brexit period; what will it look like?
I think we are going to have to pay more for travel insurance simply to make up for the extra risk that travel insurers will be carrying if the EHIC card disappears! I also think that travel insurance will take a leaf out of some pet insurance cover whereby not only do you have to pay an excess but also an extra 20% toward your medical bills - if that system was in place last summer, then we would have had to pay £1,300 toward my wife's medical treatment!
In short, a rocky road lies ahead for travel consumers and they will need to keep a close eye on developments otherwise it could cost them a great deal of money!