EU targets Spain after hospitals refuse holidaymakers' EHIC Tourists unable to use their free health card

31 May 2013


The European Commission yesterday took the first stage in legal action against Spain after complaints that state-run hospitals have refused to accept the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) from travellers.

The Commission has given Spain two months to reply, and if it isn’t satisfied that Spain is complying with this EU law, the European Court of Justice could impose a fine.

The free EHIC card entitles all EU citizens to the same emergency healthcare, and on the same basis, as a local resident in all EU countries, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Public healthcare is generally free in Spain.

But the Commission is aware of more than 100 cases where Spanish hospitals refused the EHIC, or the card holders had difficulty in obtaining their rights to reciprocal healthcare. This is an on-going issue, though - in 2010, several Which? members told us that this happened to them.

Travel insurance and the EHIC

Some patients were sometimes incorrectly told that the EHIC was invalid if they had separate travel insurance. Others believed they were being treated on the basis of the EHIC, only to later find that their travel insurance company had been sent the bill. The consumer would usually then have to pay an excess.

While it’s important to have an EHIC, the card will not provide for every medical emergency or expense that might arise when you’re abroad. So travellers should always buy separate travel insurance, which will also cover them for other problems such as trip curtailment or lost luggage.

EHIC advice

A European Commission spokesperson said: ‘Travellers with an EHIC card should where possible insist on being treated under the publicly financed health system and refuse to sign anything they do not understand. They should keep all receipts and documents.’

If your EHIC is refused from a state-run clinic, try to get proof that you presented it at the time, as this could be key to getting the excess waived by your insurer. If, for some reason, you think you’ve been incorrectly charged, you may be entitled to reimbursement from the Department of Work and Pensions.

More on this

  • Travel insurance review - the comprehensive Which? guide to travel insurance
  • EHIC advice – Which? helps you make the most of your free card
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