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, in the event of a Brexit vote in the referendum next month, the future of this reciprocal benefit would be thrown into doubt.
One of the major factors in deciding whether the EHIC would remain available to British citizens would be whether the UK severed ties with the EEA, as the card is not a European Union initiative.
There are countries, such as Norway and Iceland who are EEA members but not EU members, and all accept the EHIC, so the UK could feasibly adopt this model.
However, Gemma Sonfield, head of travel insurance at comparison website comparethemarket.com, said: “One of the Leave campaign’s major arguments centres 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 a Brexit would sever ties with the EEA as well in which case the EHIC would likely cease to exist.”
Ms Sonfield highlighted exceptions such as Switzerland that are neither EU or EEA members, but accept the EHIC as part of the single market.
“There has been speculation as to whether the UK could follow the Swiss model if we were to leave the EU,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said : “If the result of the referendum were a vote to leave, access to these benefits – such as the European Health Insurance Card – for UK citizens who work, visit or retire to other European countries, is one of the issues that would need to be resolved during the withdrawal process.
“One option could be that UK citizens retired overseas would no longer have access to necessary healthcare guaranteed by the UK government and UK residents visiting Europe would need to purchase more expensive travel insurance.”
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, rather than having a proportion dealt with through the EHIC system.
Ms Sonfield added: “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.”
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