EHIC and healthcare rights in the EU post-Brexit

Does the government want to secure your EHIC healthcare rights in the EU? David Davis hasn’t looked into it. And Jeremy Hunt doesn’t want to say.

When giving evidence to the House of Commons committee for Exiting the EU, Brexit secretary David Davis said that he did not know whether Brits would continue to have access to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). He didn’t just not know, he also hadn’t looked into it. It’s only been nine months since the referendum. And as one of the clear benefits for Brits of EU membership, you’d think he’d have done that…

Here’s a tweet from Sky News’ Faisal Islam on the hearing and Davis’ response to the committee chair, Hilary Benn.

EHIC is an EEA scheme that covers all EU countries plus EEA countries (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) as well as Switzerland via a bilateral deal. A citizen of any of those countries can apply for the EHIC. Brits can apply for the card for free through the NHS. On its website, the NHS says the EHIC entitles a person to “state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another EEA country or Switzerland”. It basically means that people with the card can get free healthcare or healthcare at a reduced cost. And a crucial feature of the scheme is that it covers pre-existing medical conditions. In general, travel insurance companies charge a costly premium for pre-existing medical conditions.

The home country of a person using healthcare in one of the countries covered would pay any costs that arise for citizens using the system. So when Brits use the system, it’s a cost to the UK government. Outside of the EHIC scheme, Brits would need to either get travel insurance themselves like they might do for travel to the USA for example or risk forking out for medical expenses should they require it.

Another question worth asking of the government is if it is making membership of the scheme part of its negotiation objectives. The Independent’s travel correspondent Simon Calder suggests that this may not be the case. In a piece on what the effects of Brexit are likely to be on travel, he writes that as the scheme is a cost to the Department of Health, it’s likely the government would prefer “travellers to be properly insured”. This would therefore put the onus on British citizens rather than the government.

What about Brits living in Europe?

In January, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt told another House of Commons committee that he could not give any guarantees that we would still be part of the EHIC scheme. The Independent reports Hunt as also saying that this was “closely related to the issue of British nationals who live abroad”.

Previously, we reported that retaining current healthcare benefits was a big issue for Brits living in the EU. This is especially the case because a big proportion of Brits living in the EU are retired. As they are not working and therefore not paying income tax, they may not have the same access to healthcare that another resident who is working might. The Financial Times quotes one British citizen living in Spain, Ms Wilson, as saying that their biggest fear was that their “healthcare in Spain will no longer be paid for, and that their UK pensions might be frozen”. She adds that she didn’t think anyone was concerned that they wouldn’t be allowed to stay but that “because of money worries, they will have no choice” but to go back to the UK.

The government insists that it cannot unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK until it can get the reciprocal rights for Brits in the EU. It may well be that negotiations over this can become very complicated as pointed out in this blog by Jon Worth. Even if that is the case, the government could still say whether it is willing to keep paying for Brits to keep these benefits. The Guardian reported recently that the government have yet to even meet with expatriate groups to discuss their priorities.

A report by the BBC found that there are 145,000 UK pensioners registered across the EEA and only 4,000 EEA pensioners registered to use the NHS. How does that look money-wise? The BBC reports that in the 2014-2015 financial year, the government paid £674.4m to other EEA countries for the healthcare of British citizens. In the same year, the government claimed back £49.7m for EEA citizens’ healthcare in the UK. That’s a big difference!

Could Simon Calder have hit the nail on the head on why the government’s been so coy on the issue?

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