By Wendy Williams

IT was the most innocuous of falls.

But when Valerie Gillmore, 67, came round during her family holiday in Ronda she knew things were bad.

“I just went to put my glasses on the table and lost my footing. Next thing I blacked out with the pain and I have no recollection of what happened next,” she explains.

“It has been very stressful but the travel insurance people have been fantastic,” adds the pensioner, from Chester.

And this all thanks to a last minute 30 euro purchase of a week’s travel insurance just hours before she, her husband Ian, 73, and daughter Lucy, 40, were due to fly.

For had her husband failed to press the button for the insurance through their carrier Monarch’s website, they would have certainly been left thousands of euros out of pocket.

It soon emerged that her left ankle was broken in three places and she had also badly sprained her right ankle.

She was rushed to hospital, where both legs were put in plaster, one of them requiring a plate and two pins to hold it together.

She would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her holiday, and most costly of all, needed to be repatriated via a special flight.

Bearing in mind an air ambulance from the Canary Islands to the UK can cost as much as 20,000 euros; it turned out to be 30 euros well spent.

The accident came just weeks after a survey by ABTA revealed that one in five Brits are failing to take out travel insurance when they go abroad risking huge medical bills.

In particular, the survey warned that people travelling to Spain risked the largest claims.

According to the report, lots of people take the ‘it’ll never happen to me’ attitude, reasoning that insurance can be expensive and you may never need it.

But as people like Valerie are finding out time and again, it is very easy to become unstuck.

So where do expats living in Spain stand when it comes to insurance?

The first thing to bear in mind for trips back to the UK is that even if you spent most of your life there, the NHS is residency based.

This means when you leave and move to another country you are no longer automatically entitled to medical treatment under normal NHS rules; so if even if you are just popping back for a weekend, travel insurance is something that needs to be considered.

Expats should also look into getting a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) – usually valid for five years – which entitles you to state-run medical services.

According to Hannah Thronicker, manager of the Pensions, Benefits and Healthcare Team at the British Embassy, the same principles apply for expats as UK residents.

“If you are accredited for healthcare in Spain, you may be entitled to an EHIC to cover you for any necessary treatment on a temporary visit elsewhere in Europe and Switzerland,” she explains.

“All you need to do is present the card in any healthcare institution in the country you’re visiting and you’ll be treated on the same basis as an insured national of that country.”

So, where do you get the EHIC if you are a British expat living in Spain?

Well, if you work in Spain, receive any Spanish state pension or benefit, or are a family member of someone who does, you need to apply for your EHIC (known in Spanish as a ‘Tarjeta Sanitaria Europea’) through your local INSS (or Social Security) office.You can find out where your local office is – and also apply online – at www.seg-social.es.

Alternatively, if your healthcare is funded by the UK, even if you live in Spain, you need to apply for your EHIC through the UK.

Unfortunately if you’re not covered by either Spain or the UK’s social security systems you may not be entitled to an EHIC from either country and will need to get private travel insurance.

But there is some good news.

As Thronicker explains: “In the UK, emergency treatment given inside an Accident and Emergency department, a minor injuries unit or a NHS Walk-in Centre is free to all.

“Also, if you’ve lived in the UK for 10 years straight at some point, you may be entitled to treatment required for any condition that occurs after arrival in the UK, or a pre-existing condition that could acutely exacerbate or need prompt treatment while there.

“So, just because you don’t have an EHIC doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not entitled to treatment.

“But do make sure you get travel insurance in any case,” she added.

It is also worth bearing in mind, as many Brits have found out at their peril, the EHIC itself does not mean that everything is necessarily free.

“The card does not cover all treatment, nor does it cover repatriation,” adds Thronicker.

“Although most trips pass off without any problems, it’s always sensible to be prepared for any eventuality.”

So what should expats be looking for when choosing health insurance and where can they buy it?

The first thing to point out is that you have to buy insurance in the country where you are a resident.

Many people buy policies over the internet from UK companies and then find they are not covered as they are not UK residents.

This can be annoying as travel insurance can actually be cheaper in the UK, but that, sadly is irrelevent.

Gina Rudd, the Marketing boss for expat insurance company Staysure (www.staysure.co.uk) offers the following advice: “The client needs to purchase insurance in the country where they reside for more than six months of the year. If their main residence is Spain, they will need to purchase expat travel insurance which allows them to travel to the UK.”

She continues: “Our cover provides up to five million pounds of emergency medical cover and repatriation, however clients must declare any pre-existing medical conditions and pay the additional premium if their condition falls outside of the 220 conditions included in the policy free of charge.”

Certainly one of the keys to buying travel insurance is making sure you understand what is and what is not covered, as policies can vary greatly.

Travel agencies, insurance companies and credit card companies all offer travel insurance, and with some credit cards you will be automatically
covered when you travel.

It is worth mentioning however that credit card travel insurance tends to be basic, and is often called ‘Travel Accident’ cover. This means cover does not apply to the traveller before they travel or after they arrive at their destination, it covers them literally while they’re travelling.

It is worth checking with your bank to find out exactly what is covered.

Other things to consider when choosing insurance include whether you want a yearly policy or a short term policy.

“One thing to bear in mind that many people do not understand is that a yearly policy does not mean that you are covered for 365 days of the year,” explains Jacqueline Caplen from The Insurance Centre in Coin.

Indeed, there is often an individual trip duration limit that can vary between 30 and 90 days. Moreover some policies will have a maximum limit of up to 183 days within any 12 month period.

“The key thing to remember is that every policy is different and you should double check exactly what you are covered for, particularly with medical insurance,” adds Caplen.

She continues: “Lots of people will simply click on the insurance policy that flashes up when they buy their flight but while this will cover you for lots of things it will not cover you for everything.”

She particularly warns that if you are travelling to places further afield such as America where medical bills can be very expensive a cheap policy is not always the best.

It may only include a small amount of cover for medical bills that could end up being very expensive.

“Cheap policies are not always best due to the sums insured,” she explains.

Tell this to the Gillmore family. As far as they are concerned, their 30 euros was ‘the best money ever spent.’

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