Myths about the EHIC system

Ensuring that appropriate healthcare provisions are in place is just one of the key steps that British expats need to make when relocating abroad. Whether moving alone, as a couple, or with family, it’s essential that everyone who will be calling a new country home for the foreseeable future has access to good-quality medical care whenever they need it.
Most of us are already familiar with the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) system, and probably have one in their wallet. This is a card that gives the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland. The EHIC covers any treatment that is medically necessary until the planned departure date.
When considering a move abroad, there are likely to be initial trips to visit the country for things like job interviews, house hunting, researching areas, networking and so on. For these short-term stays, everyone in the travelling party should have a valid EHIC. However, it is also important to understand how it works and what it gives access to, as it can be misunderstood.

Common myths

It’s often assumed that the EHIC gives free healthcare anywhere in the EEA, which isn’t true. What the card does is provide treatment on the same basis as a resident of the country. So, in countries where a resident would get free healthcare, then it is indeed free. But in some countries, residents have to pay a certain percentage towards their healthcare services and, as such, EHIC card holders are expected to do the same.
Also, just because a treatment or service is included in the UK’s NHS system, doesn’t mean that same is true in another country. Again, treatment is offered in the same way as it would be to a resident – some services or treatments that might be free in the UK, could attract large private fees abroad. It’s worth researching this in advance of visits so that there are no unexpected costs.
The EHIC can’t be used to get treatment for a specific medical condition in another country if that is the purpose of travel. So, while routine treatment for existing medical conditions and maternity services is covered if they are required as part of a short-term stay for other reasons, it’s not possible to travel to another EEA country for the purposes of giving birth or having a specific operation, for example. This is to ensure that it doesn’t get used for ‘medical tourism’.
Another common misconception, is that the EHIC negates the need for travel insurance. This isn’t the case, as the EHIC doesn’t cover any private costs. This might include things like mountain rescue, needing to get flown home early, medical treatment not covered by the state healthcare, etc. A comprehensive travel insurance policy would be needed to pick up these costs. If there are likely to be a few trips abroad in advance of a more permanent move, then an annual travel insurance policy might be the most cost effective.

Long-term relocation

The EHIC is only intended for temporary visits to another EEA country, so expats need to ensure that they have the right long-term healthcare in place. After moving abroad permanently, an expat is not automatically entitled to medical treatment under normal NHS rules – the NHS services are only available to those ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK.
Most expats will no longer be entitled to use a UK-issued EHIC to access healthcare in Europe. However, there are exceptions to this, including those posted to work in Europe by a UK employer. It’s therefore important to register with the local state healthcare system upon becoming a new resident, as well as take out the appropriate health insurance to cover all the family’s needs.