Ask Sindie: Am I travelling light with my E111 form?

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We both have E111 forms already, and so I'm not sure how much extra cover we need to purchase.

I also read recently that these forms are changing. I'm not sure when those changes are coming into play - and whether this will affect our forthcoming trip.

Further, as our existing forms were issued around a year ago, I don't even know if these are still valid.

Can you clarify whether we are still covered by our old E111s, and if not, how we go about applying for new ones?

GL, by email

A: You are right in thinking that the current E111 form is going through change, and right in wondering whether some amendments have been made already. So it's worth familiarising yourself with these reforms before you travel to save a lot of hassle in the event of accident or illness.

First, even if your forms have been issued within the past 12 months, they will only be valid until 31 December this year. And if they were issued before 19 August 2004 - the date on which a new format for the form was introduced - they will already be out of date. Since then, travellers have had to apply for the new-style E111.

And in the latest change, which took effect at the start of this month, they have been issued with a card instead.

This is the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which will run alongside the E111 until January next year, when it replaces it altogether.

The EHIC will be the new "passport" that all British travellers - normally resident in the UK - need to produce should they incur medical expenses while travelling on the Continent.

According to the Department of Health (DoH), the card entitles you to reduced-cost, and sometimes free, medical treatment while you're in a European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland.

The EEA consists of European Union (EU) states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, while Switzerland applies the EHIC arrangements through an agreement with the EU.

The EHIC covers any "necessary" medical treatment that arises during your trip - because of either illness or an accident, explains a DoH spokeswoman.

It gives access to state-provided medical treatment only, and you will be treated on the same basis as an "insured" person living in the country you're visiting.

"The EHIC card works on a reciprocal agreement," she says. "But this does mean you may not be covered for all the things you'd expect to get free of charge on the National Health Service here in the UK. So you should be prepared to make a contribution to the cost of your care."

While the new card will offer the same cover as the E111, there are differences in the way it is administered.

For example, with the old-style E111, one form could cover the whole family; under the new system, each member will require one. The card should be valid for three to five years.

You can apply free of charge for an EHIC - online, by post or by phone - and also make a request on behalf of your spouse or partner and any children (aged up to 16 years old).

When applying, you will need the date of birth and NHS or national insurance number of each applicant.

Travellers should also be aware that the E111 or EHIC is no substitute for insurance. You will still need a comprehensive travel policy to protect yourself against all eventualities.

Failure to take out insurance means you will not be covered for costly extras such as personal liability, cancellation, loss of baggage and repatriation.

At the same time, good travel cover doesn't negate the need for an E111 or EHIC.

"The two should be carried in tandem," says the DoH spokeswoman. "Some travel insurance policies can turn out to be invalid without an E111 or EHIC."

Recent findings from the DoH show that more than a third of British people have travelled to a continental European country without either a valid E111 or travel insurance - leaving them vulnerable to the possibility of large medical bills.

"Carrying the card in your wallet takes the hassle out of travelling. It should mean you don't have to go through endless form-filling in hospital and should make your life much simpler," she adds.

You can apply for the new card by going to www.dh.gov.uk/ travellers and your request will be processed within seven days. It will take 10 days if you apply over the phone on 0845 606 2030. Alternatively, you can pick up a form at the post office and apply by post; the process will take 21 days.

When you go on holiday, make sure you take all the relevant travel documents with you, as many hospitals will ask to see evidence before proceeding with treatment.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice.

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