EU reciprocal healthcare arrangements allow citizens of EU and EEA nations (and Switzerland) to access health and social care services while in any other of those nations. They do so on the same basis as a resident of that nation would and at either no or low cost.
These arrangements include European Healthcare Insurance Card (EHIC), which provides access to state-provided healthcare for short-term visitors; and the S1 scheme, which allows ongoing access to health and social care services for individuals living abroad. All of this is important for workers, students, the retired and holiday makers – affecting millions of UK and EU citizens.
Depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, UK citizens could lose access to these arrangements. Agreement has been reached that pensioners already living in the EU will continue to benefit from the S1 scheme and EHIC, but no deal has been reached on wider access and the impact could be significant.
As with many other matters, there is some uncertainty about what will happen after Brexit. Recent talks between our government and the EU27 confirmed that UK citizens who are working, studying or retired elsewhere in the EU on the day we leave will be still be eligible for the same healthcare, including use of EHIC.
Agreement however, has not been reached on whether EHIC would be available to those who travel to, or go to live in, another EU country after Brexit. It would seem that the EU wants discussions on that to be included in the negotiations on future relations, which will take place only after ‘sufficient progress’ has been made on the ‘divorce’ issues.
Failure to agree withdrawal terms by March 2019 would put an end to healthcare reciprocity between the UK and EU, bringing with it disruption and uncertainty – not to mention rising health and travel insurance costs. Moreover, the demand on the NHS and HSC Northern Ireland would place greater pressure on doctors and clinicians as our citizens return home for treatment.
That is why Labour has tabled a frontbench amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to prioritise negotiation of continued access to existing reciprocal healthcare schemes, or the creation of comparable alternatives.
Such an approach would ensure continuity of care for UK citizens living abroad and ease of access to care for UK residents visiting or holidaying in the EU or EEA. It would also avoid increasing demand on, and costs for, our own health and care services. For the EU meanwhile, it would secure their citizens access to reciprocal arrangements in the UK.
Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Health Minister in the House of Lords