Every country in Europe has slightly different rules about what you do and don’t have to pay for your healthcare treatment. For instance, you know that in the UK our healthcare system is largely free at the point of use – that is, it’s paid for through our taxes and National Insurance, and if you turn up at your GP surgery or hospital you don’t get charged. The same is not true for other countries within Europe.
Your European health insurance card (EHIC) will enable you to be treated in just the same way as if you were a resident of that country.
Sometimes, then, you will have to pay up front for your treatment and then try to seek a European health insurance refund when you get back to the UK.
However, the rules on EHIC refunds have recently changed. Now if you are visiting an EEA (European Economic Area) country – which includes all the countries in the European Union plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, you will have to pay whatever upfront fees may apply (like a resident of that country would), and will probably not be entitled to a refund of those costs when you get back to the UK.
New European health insurance refund rules
Before 1st July 2014, if you had to pay any money for healthcare treatment whilst visiting an EEA country or Switzerland, you could claim a European health insurance card refund when you got home.
Since then, however, whilst you can try to claim a refund for your bill when you are still abroad, you can no longer apply for an EHIC refund when you get back to the UK.
It is sensible to take out travel insurance anyway – to protect you against the cost of delays, cancellations, loss or theft of belongings, private medical treatment and repatriation to the UK – and the new rules provide one more reason to do so. Make sure you get receipts for any money you pay out for healthcare when abroad and seek to reclaim these costs from your insurer, as you won’t get it back through a European health insurance card refund.
So why get an EHIC?
If you were to travel without your EHIC, any healthcare treatment you required would be charged for at a rate far greater than if you were a resident of that country. For instance, in Austria, going to hospital would cost you around €20 at most per day for up to 28 days if you have your EHIC; that is exactly what the hospital would charge someone who had lived in Austria all their life. Without an EHIC, you would be charged at the far higher rate than the hospital would charge a non-EEA or Swiss citizen; a charge that would more accurately reflect the actual cost of your hospital stay.
It is very important, therefore, to take your anyway with you when you travel so that you can prove that you are entitled to healthcare on the same terms as a resident of the country in which you are staying.