Sunseekers may not be eligible for state healthcare as Greek hospitals feel the pinch


British holidaymakers who fall ill in Greece this summer could find they cannot obtain state-funded healthcare due to the country's economic crisis.

Holiday Illness

In theory, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) allows all EU citizens access to state medical care across the union. However, as the Greek debt crisis forces severe cuts to hospital services, British tourists have been warned not to rely on the card.

For almost a quarter of a million holidaymakers travelling to Greece without insurance this summer, this could mean private healthcare bills of thousands of pounds.

Currently Greece still accepts the EHIC. But as Greek hospitals ration medication, limit non-urgent operations and curtail treatment even for Greek nationals, cardholders are increasingly being covered only for locally-provided care.

Yet even holidaymakers with travel insurance could find their insurers are reluctant to readily pay for private treatment.

Among the victims of the cuts was Penelope Southern, from Hampshire, who was charged thousands of pounds for private medical care when she became seriously ill in Crete in May.

The 57 year-old had been with her family on the Greek island for 1 week when she was taken to hospital in great pain. Mrs Southern was told that unless she had surgery for a strangulated bowel, she might die within 2 days.

As she had recovered from cancer 3 years before and had suffered numerous other medical problems, Mrs Southern had been sure to arrange travel insurance. While she acknowledged that she would not be covered for any illness connected with her cancer, she felt well and believed a holiday would pose no risk.

However, her travel insurer Virgin refused to pay for the cost of private surgery. The firm claimed that Mrs Southern's illness was related to a previous medical condition, a position which Mrs Southern, backed by a doctor's note, refuted.

When Virgin refused to back down, the Southerns had to find around £17,000 to pay for the treatment.

Although Mrs Southern had believed her travel insurance would cover any emergency, she also had the EHIC as a fallback. This meant she had to be referred to a local hospital for treatment, where she underwent successful surgery before returning home. She is now recuperating while still trying to reclaim her money from Virgin.

Mrs Southern's case shows how important it is to arrange holiday insurance that suits your particular needs. Here are some tips on how to avoid huge private healthcare bills if you fall ill in Greece.

The most common ailments when travelling abroad are food poisoning (or, notoriously, tap-water) from hotels or restaurants, and bacterial illnesses picked up from dirty swimming pools.

Even before the credit crunch, more holidaymakers needed medical treatment in Greece than almost any other country, with gastroenteritis among the most usual reasons for a hospital stay.

So what if illness forces you to pay for medical care while you're abroad? UK government legislation, enshrined in the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992, means you can claim compensation from your tour operator.

You can also claim compensation from a cruise line, your hotel or any other party responsible for your illness.

Legislation aside, it's worth shopping around and looking at a variety of holiday insurers, as policies can greatly differ. And make sure you read your policy's terms and conditions of cover – the 'fine-print' – before you take out an agreement.

It's also useful to have a European Health Insurance Card. Despite the problems in Greece, in most EU countries the EHIC will give you access to state healthcare at reduced or no cost, covering you for any treatment you need to continue your holiday.

The EHIC also covers you for treatment of existing medical conditions and for routine maternity care (unless you're going abroad for the sole purposes of having a baby).

If you have suffered from an illness on a package holiday such as salmonella, campylobacter, cryptosporidium, ecoli or dysentery etc and you feel your hotel or resort conditions were a factor in your contracting this illness then you may be able to claim compensation.

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