Despite being entitled to free or discounted medical treatment, Alan Viggers was left in agony for almost three hours after he suffered a heart attack in Spain.
The 68-year-old from Horndean was on a break with his wife Rosemary in the resort of Alicante. But only two days into their holiday he began to feel unwell.
Millions of holidaymakers rely on the European Health Insurance Card scheme while holidaymaking abroad to provide free or discounted emergency medical treatment under an EU-wide agreement.
The scheme entitles UK citizens to the same emergency medical facilities as locals while they’re abroad, and allows EU tourists access to our NHS.
Alan said: ‘I consider myself lucky to be alive to tell the tale, but I’d just like to warn others that treatment for serious medical conditions in Spain could turn into your worst nightmare.
‘We’d just finished lunch, when I started to feel a bit of tightness in the chest. I put it down to heartburn, so we decided to return to our hotel for a bit of an afternoon siesta.
‘Rose was beginning to get anxious because the pain started to spread down my arms. She quickly realised I might be having a heart attack.
‘When I tried to walk the pain was excruciating. My speech became a bit slurred, so she immediately called reception to ring for an ambulance.’
‘They organised a taxi, but when we got to the hospital the administration took my EHIC details but claimed they had no emergency beds. They said the best thing we could do was to use our travel insurance back-up and sent us to a private hospital.’
Frantic with worry, the couple arrived at the private hospital. Alan was rushed into intensive care and given pain relief while Rose was left to sort out the paperwork.
Doctors decided he needed a triple bypass, but before they would operate they’d need an upfront payment of 15,000 euros, nearly £11,000 .
Rose said: ‘I was sick with worry and I really didn’t know what to do. They said they’d had trouble getting the money from UK insurers because so many emergency treatments were caused by inappropriate behaviour by British tourists and claims were routinely turned down.
‘Because of Alan’s dire situation I was left with no other option but to call my bank in the UK and explain I needed to up my credit limit in order to pay for the operation.
‘Luckily, the bank agreed without hesitation after I gave them details of our insurers, but I shouldn’t have been put in that situation.’
On learning about Alan’s experience Streetwise was concerned whether what happened to the couple was a one-off, or could be routinely repeated and put lives at risk.
We spoke to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for its take on the matter, but all it would agree to say was that Alan had received comparable treatment to a Spanish national.
We decided to make further enquiries about the reciprocal healthcare arrangements with Spain under the EHIC scheme.
We wanted to know whether its health service was discriminating against treating British tourists.
It revealed that for every Spanish tourist that received emergency treatment from the NHS, five UK tourists made emergency claims in Spain.
Many Spanish hospitals in holiday resorts were overwhelmed with demands for emergency treatment during the summer months, mainly as a result of unsocial binge drinking episodes.
However, the Department of Work & Pensions, which administers the EHIC in the UK, couldn’t provide us with any figures to suggest the Spanish authorities were regularly ducking out of their healthcare responsibilities towards UK tourists.
We still doubted whether a Spanish citizen would be turned away from a hospital providing state healthcare, so we also contacted the European Commission for its take on the EU’s implementation of the European Cross Border Health Directive.
A spokesperson said: ‘We take all complaints about violations of the directive very seriously.
‘I can confirm during the past five years we’ve taken infringement proceedings against Spain in respect of a number of hospitals which were reported to us for refusing to accept their EHIC obligations to European economic area citizens.
‘We need citizens to come forward. If we receive any complaints we will open investigations and not hesitate to take regulatory action.’
Streetwise told the couple about the result of our enquiries. Alan said: ‘I’m recovering well and I’m just pleased our experience has given you the opportunity to flag this up to readers.
‘Although the Spanish doctors eventually did me proud, I still can’t believe my luck. My NHS specialist was appalled and agreed my life was put at risk.
‘Now that people know they can complain about EHIC infringements, hopefully people won’t get turned away.’