and Why it Needs to Stay

The Brexit referendum in June 2016 signaled the start of the divorce process between the European Union and the United Kingdom. While many say that the referendum does not mean anything until Article 50 has been triggered by the UK, which government executives say will commence in March 2017, the 52%-48% Leave vote sent shockwaves not only to the British Isles but also the rest of the world. While it is true that the divorce has not yet been initiated, the relationship is like marriage already on stormy waters. Unfortunately, one of the hapless victims in this impending divorce is the healthcare of millions of Britons who travel extensively across Europe and still avail of world-class healthcare services in these nations without prejudice to their being Britons. This is made possible by the EHIC. And with the divorce process looming, UK travelers are worrying if they will ever be able to use their EHIC again.

Understanding EHIC


The European Health Insurance Card or EHIC is a mechanism designed by the signatories of 32 different countries to allow their respective nationalities to avail of the same level of health care and medical care afforded to the citizens of the countries that they are visiting. For example, if you are a UK national and you visit Greece for a holiday or even on a business trip and you inadvertently required medical attention, Greek healthcare institutions and providers can provide you with the same services that they would provide Greek nationals without any change in the cost of these services. In some cases, the services provided are absolutely free while in some instances you may be obliged to pay a small amount as your participation in the program.

The European Health Insurance System allowed member countries to provide public healthcare services to visitors from other EHIC-member nations. These included the 28 countries that make up the European Union and the 4 countries that comprise the European Free Trade Association. Three nations in the EFTA namely, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland, decided to join the European Economic Area. Switzerland, another EFTA member, did not join the EEA. As such, when people talk about the countries that accept the EHIC, they always say EEA + Switzerland.

The EHIC after Brexit

Since the UK is still a part of the EU, despite the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, UK nationals should still be able to enjoy the same healthcare and medical benefits they enjoyed since the inception of the EHIC in 2004 which saw full use in 2006. This is because, as pundits claim, unless the final terms of UK’s withdrawal from the Union has been agreed upon and ratified by the Union, then the UK is still pretty much a part of the Union. Hence, any programs that the single market has spawned in recent years are still in effect. This includes the EHIC program.

This means that UK nationals will still be able to obtain the same quality and level of healthcare from the EEA member countries and Switzerland if they do travel and get sick in these countries. As long as their primary purpose is not to seek medical attention or even to give birth, then EHIC will still be able to provide for their medical and health care needs at a significantly lower price or even free in some instances.

This is what many UK nationals are afraid of losing if indeed Brexit becomes official. They will no longer be able to use their EHIC in countries that belong to the EU simply because UK is no longer part of the EU.

However, there is a possible solution to all of these.

The Future of EHIC for UK Nationals in Europe

One of the models being proposed is to negotiate a deal with individual members of the European Union. It is usually a very tedious process and one that cannot guarantee success every time. This model requires the UK government to individually negotiate with each of the 27 EU members in pretty much the same way as Switzerland did with its multiple bilateral agreements with member nations of the European Union. This will entail a lot of negotiations which can drag on for years.

Another option, one which is entirely possible, is for UK to retain the EHIC but will only apply to visits made to Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein. This is because these four countries are not members of the Union. Instead, they are the remaining members of the EFTA. All of these 4 countries recognize and accept the EHIC. If in case Brexit really does become official, UK tourists and holiday merrymakers can still visit these 4 nations and still enjoy the same benefits that EHIC brings. It should be understood that the EHIC is not really an exclusive program of the EU but rather the EEA. The EFTA  countries are not members of the EU and yet they recognize and accept EHIC.

The other option, which pundits say is close to impossible, is for UK to disregard the results of the referendum and provide a parliamentary vote to the triggering or not triggering of the Article 50. Of course, this is all mute and academic given the fact that the 2-year time period given to come up with the final terms of withdrawal is largely considered by many experts to be short. This is not including the fact that the UK remains a formidable force in global politics. The good news is that it may take another ten years or so from the date of Article 50 triggering to see the real exit of the UK from the Union. Until then, many things can still happen.

While it is understandable that people can get jittery when their benefits are curtailed, it should be understood that Brexit is far from official. Healthcare experts can still lobby their case to exclude the EHIC from the withdrawal process. However, those who are affected by the impending demise of the EHIC in the UK can only hope and pray that their leaders will be able to come up with a much better deal to help ensure the continued health of UK nationals wherever they may go in Europe and the rest of the world.

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  1. John says:

    The UK was a member of EFTA prior to joining the Common Market.
    Why not re-join EFTA?
    Then, presumably, the benefits of EHIC would still apply to UK citizens.

  2. Clare Hartley says:

    I will renew my EHIC card for the 4 countries when it expires if I happen to visit one of them. I hope the government makes deal with some EU countries.

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