A little heralded proposal formulated under the NHS’s clampdown on “health tourism” could see thousands of British expatriates imminently denied free healthcare across Europe.

The suggestion was contained within a 30+ page report, Sustaining services, ensuring fairness, published in December 2013. Prepared by government’s International Health Team and the Visitor & Migrant Cost Recovery team the report’s impact on British expats received scant attention, perhaps because populist news agendas were focused on migrants coming to the UK gaining access to NHS services.

But if the planned scrapping of the S1 Residual Form (formerly E121) goes ahead it will have a dramatic effect on those who retire early and choose to live in any of the 30 countries which sit alongside the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA).

Not only will it be dramatic, it could be immediate. The report states that as the UK is under no EU obligation to pay for the overseas healthcare of British citizens who are below retirement age, its intention is “to investigate ending [payments] as soon as is practicable; probably from April 2014”. So it could be as early as next Tuesday. However since that December forecast attempts by journalists to pin the Department of Health down on when this is going to happen have been akin to nailing jelly.

There seems little doubt it will happen though which means many may well seek out private expatriate health insurance (also known as international health insurance) to ensure they can gain access to medical facilities and treatments.

How big a deal is the clampdown on health tourism?

Whilst it clearly doesn’t affect the majority of expat pensioners this could nonetheless impact thousands. Currently if you retire early (under 65 for men, under 60 for women) and head to another EEA country you can complete the S1 prior to your departure and then claim access to healthcare in your host country for up to 30 months. That is, mind you, assuming you have paid sufficient National Insurance contributions for the previous three years.

Of course it must also be remembered that those youthful retirees accepted under the current S1 regime still only get time limited access to care. So, for example, if a man heads to foreign climes at 60, gaily waving his S1, he must remember that at best he’ll be covered only until he’s 62-and-a-half. That is he’ll have a 30 month gap before the EEA reciprocal cover kicks back in.

Quite what is going to happen remains unclear. We asked the Department of Health for clarification on Monday 24 March and were simply told: “We continue to work through the operational implications and will make a further announcement once this work has been completed.” Beyond that the department appears to have committed itself only to saying that “The changes apply only to new applications” and that “All existing residual S1 forms will remain in place and continue to be valid until their cessation date.”

Planning ahead – expat health insurance

With it seems, only an implementation date to be confirmed, early retirees seeking to become EEA expats need to now be thinking through alternative plans. The obvious first step is to get an expatriate health insurance quote so that the financial implications and benefits (and limitations) of cover can be assessed.

This sounds easy but we really would recommend that you seek professional advice. Price comparison sites are fine as far as they go, but when it comes to protecting your health (and that of your partner and dependants should they be moving with you) then the personal touch can really add value – especially if you have particular concerns sparked perhaps by a family medical history.

Remember too, that there are not just many international health insurance policies on the market, which typically offer tiered or optional cover choices, but there are also substantial differences in the quality of medical facilities and care offered by different countries. Expert advice can save you wading through documents trying to gauge which of the many options available are best suited to you – and your budget.

So have a think about what it is you’re looking for from your policy. For example, is cover for cancer treatments high on your list? What about dental or eye care? Working with someone who knows what the market has to offer, the strengths and weaknesses of particular healthcare providers in particular territories, can save you both time and money. Not to mention hassle. After all isn’t hassle what you’re retiring to get away from?

Chase Templeton Limited is registered in England and Wales No. 3299980 – registered address: 5 Arkwright Court, Blackburn Interchange, Darwen, BB3 0FG. Towergate Underwriting Group Limited is registered in England and Wales No. 4043759 – registered address: Towergate House Eclipse Park Sittingbourne Road Maidstone Kent ME14 3EN.  VAT Registration No: 447284724.