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Healthcare without borders - 18/08/2008

Commission calls for rules to make it easier for Europeans to travel abroad for medical treatment

Not long ago, a Luxembourg man bought a pair of spectacles in Arlon, a city in neighbouring Belgium. His health insurance company in Luxembourg refused to pay for the glasses, saying he should have sought its approval prior to the purchase. The man took the case to the European court of justice and won.

The case is one of several on cross-border care to come before the court in recent years. Others involved treatment either unavailable in the home country or not available fast enough. The court has consistently ruled that patients be reimbursed.

The cases show that beyond the court, considerable uncertainty still surrounds the subject of cross-border care. And so in July, the commission unveiled a proposal that clarifies patient rights.

Under the proposal, people would be able to claim up to the amount that their public health insurance would fund for the same treatment at home. They would not need their doctor’s approval for non-hospital procedures, but they might still need authorisation for hospital treatment abroad. 

Currently only a small fraction of Europeans seek treatment abroad, with just 1% of national health budgets spent on cross-border care. According to an EU survey , some 30% of Europeans don’t know they are covered for treatment throughout the EU.

The proposed rules for covering medical expenses abroad are just part of the package, which must be approved by the European parliament and EU governments to take effect. The package also aims to:

  • improve information about medical services available throughout the EU
  • ensure that cross-border patients get good standard care
  • guarantee that prescriptions are recognised across borders
  • create EU-wide networks of healthcare providers, giving patients more access to highly specialised care and enabling countries to pool resources
  • enable patients to seek redress for harm from healthcare abroad
  • ensure the timely transfer of vital information, like blood group, known allergies and medical conditions


For emergency care while abroad, the European health insurance card is indispensable. One in three Europeans now carries the free card in case they get sick or are hurt while travelling.

Patients' rights: questions and answers

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