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Wednesday January 6, 2010

Are sickly Brits asking too much of Spain?

About 200 disgruntled British expats have just taken to the streets of Alicante in protest at the Valencia regional government’s plan to withdraw free healthcare to British early retirees living there.

There are now an estimated one million Brits living in Spain although fewer than 400,000 have declared residency and if we’re to believe the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) the exodus of Brits since 2007, numbering about 250,000 per annum, is the largest UK emigration since the sixties. It seems that a job lot ended up in Spain.

Back in 2003, the Valencia regional government, perhaps unwisely, offered free healthcare to émigré British shunning the UK for an Eldorado existence. Most of these new arrivals chose to live in Little Britain ghettos in urbanisations where a Spaniard was as rare a sighting as a Golden Plover. Most didn’t integrate or learn the lingo, and crucially, the majority no longer worked. To its chagrin, the Valencia health authority soon acknowledged that this ageing foreign population was costing the region millions of euros every year in healthcare. To stop the rot, it has now put its foot down and decided to charge expats an annual levy of 1080 euros for state healthcare, and with the intervention of the British Consulate, agreed to continue cover for those with chronic conditions. This has cut no ice with some local expats who perhaps foolishly believed they’d spend their old age supported by the Spanish healthcare system. How wrong they were.

Let us face the facts. Unlike the UK, the Spanish government does not offer state healthcare to all and sundry who take up domicile status. Immigrants-or expats, if you like-must contribute to the economy to receive benefits. Valencia was an oddity and has subsequently regretted its earlier largesse. The only way a British expat can qualify for state healthcare in Spain is by working and paying into its social security system, being under 18, or a retired UK citizen. The only other concession is for new UK expats who can receive up to 30 months free healthcare providing they’ve previously paid UK national insurance contributions.

The point is that there is no Europe wide reciprocal agreement on healthcare provision for those under retirement age and so Spain can set whatever rules it wants. As far as the Alicante martyrs go, what were they thinking? To leave your country of residence on a wing and a prayer without future provision is surely at best naïve? Much as one can sympathise with those in Valencia now crushed by the rollercoaster rate of exchange and plummeting pensions and house prices, it doesn’t alter the fact that they didn’t do their homework or think long-term.

Rebecca Bellafont-Evans, managing director of Mallorca Solutions, which aids expats with residency problems, admits that few British think about healthcare issues until they set foot in the country. ‘I’d say 90 percent of expats turn up in Mallorca without even checking on healthcare provision in advance. Most mistakenly believe that they’ll be entitled to free healthcare as in the UK and rarely think about the future.’

For those not eligible for free healthcare, Spain offers excellent private health insurance for as little as 60 euros per month and the private hospitals are superb and widespread.

While some of us continue to work in order to afford sufficient healthcare and live a desirable expat existence in Spain, others choose to retire early and live the dream. But when the cash dries up and they’ve no provision, is it really fair to expect the host country to pick up the tab?

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