How to have a healthy flight
I know everyone has had enough of it, but we need to talk about the B word. With all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, it's impossible to know what will happen to travel insurance cover for medical problems in the near future. And while most of the recent political headlines in relation to health have related to privatisation of the NHS in the UK, foreign travel health is equally important.
Medical travel compared
Most people assume any medical issues they have will be covered as long as they're in Europe. But as you'll see below, this can be an expensive mistake.
Personally, I wouldn't dream of travelling outside the UK, even within Europe, without medical cover. For further-flung parts of the word, I tell all my patients that separate health insurance is absolutely essential. I also always advise them to check insurance will cover them for any past or existing medical conditions - assuming my globe-trotting patients ask me before they travel. All too often they don't, and the first I hear is when they want me to help them pick up the pieces when they're presented with hefty bills.
Research from Medical Travel Compared, which specialises in comparing quotes for people with medical conditions they might need to declare, shows just how many Brits run the risk of having travel health claims turned down because they haven't provided the details they need to. For example:
- 7 in 10 didn't know they need to declare any diagnosis of depression, no matter how long ago.
- Almost 3 in 4 were unaware that even if they've been clear for 10 years or more, they still need to declare any diagnosis of cancer.
- Nearly 7 In 10 didn't realise they would need to declare a mild heart attack which happened many years ago.
Currently, if you have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), you're entitled to the same state medical treatment as a local in the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland. However, Brexit isn't over yet and your right to healthcare overseas is uncertain. Depending on the events of the next few months:
- EHIC cards may not be valid if there's a no-deal Brexit.
- If Brexit happens with Boris Johnson's withdrawal agreement, there will be a transition period until the end of 2020, during which all EU laws (including those covering EHIC cards) will apply.
- You may have an issue if you start your travel before Brexit but you fall ill after Brexit.
- Even if we do leave with a deal, cover for these countries will depend on arrangements with individual countries. Even with an EHIC, you might need to pay more for treatment than you would have under the current regulations, or you might need to pay in full.
When EHIC covers existing medical conditions
Purchased travel medical insurance doesn't cover the cost of ongoing routine medical care for pre-existing conditions while you're abroad. In that respect, the EHIC is different. For instance:
- If you're pregnant, an EHIC does cover you for routine maternity care, as long as you're not planning to deliver your baby abroad.
- An EHIC will cover dialysis for kidney failure if you need it. However, this needs to be organised in advance through your NHS renal unit.
- If you need oxygen because you have a severe lung condition, this can be arranged through your EHIC. However, you will need to use the authorised oxygen company for the country that you're visiting. You can get more details on who you need to contact from the British Lung Foundation helpline. Your home oxygen supplier will usually not be able to provide you with oxygen for your trip, so you'll have to make all the arrangements you need in advance.
And when EHIC isn't enough
Even if you're travelling within the EU before the end of the Brexit transition period, making assumptions could leave you seriously out of pocket. As a GP, I always advise my patients to take out separate travel health insurance, even within areas covered by the EHIC. While EHIC does cover you for emergency care relating to a complication of an existing condition, you can't assume you're covered for everything. For instance:
- Treatment under EHIC arrangements doesn't always mean free treatment (many folk in other countries need to pay something even if they're insured).
- EHIC won't cover you if you're going abroad specifically to receive treatment (this is also unlikely to be covered under standard travel insurance).
- EHIC may not cover the cost of ambulances.
- Outside of medical care, EHIC won't cover you if you need to cancel your holiday, have to end your holiday early or lose your baggage. Nor will it cover the cost of repatriation if you're taken seriously ill abroad.
The verdict on EHIC
For now, the EHIC provides partial cover for costs accrued if you fall ill abroad, or if you need some types of ongoing medical care. But it may not cover the whole cost of treatment and doesn't cover the cost of special arrangements to get you home. That means it makes sense to take out travel health insurance, and importantly to check your insurance is valid if you have any medical conditions.
As for post-Brexit arrangements? I work for the NHS, and they've banned us from using crystal balls.
Disclaimer: Dr Sarah Jarvis has worked as a medical advisor for Medical Travel Compared.