‘It’s torture’: How ailing pensioners in France have become the human cost of Brexit

On the heels of the latest UK government announcement, British pensioners in France, some of whom have serious even terminal health conditions reveal how the anxiety of not knowing how their vital treatment will be covered has added to the torture.

'It's torture': How ailing pensioners in France have become the human cost of Brexit
Many pensioners cannot afford healthcare and are desperately worried about their futures. Photo: AFP

The news that the British government has pledged to continue covering the health costs for pensioners in the EU for only six months if Britain leaves the EU without a deal has caused a huge amount of anger and worry.

The 180,000 British pensioners in the EU, who have grown used to being used as bargaining chips over the last three years despite their vulnerability, have been told repeatedly by politicians they would be able to continue their lives as before.

READ ALSO What is France's PUMa healthcare system and am I eligible?

But the reality is their futures, which for many depend on access to healthcare due to chronic illness, now hinge on agreements being made between governments.

While pensioners in the EU are being urged not to panic many cannot help but fear what lies in store for them as Brexit reaches another crucial point.

“Yesterday around 200 people contacted me to tell me how losing their S1 cover would affect them – all of them were heartbreaking to read,” Kalba Meadows from France Rights and British in Europe told The Local.

“We need the real human cost of Brexit to be heard far and wide. And we urgently need the UK government to publicly confirm that they are still seeking future bilateral or EU wide agreements on health care, so that people like those who've spoken out here can sleep again at night.”

Here three pensioners living in France explain why life has become so fraught since the EU referendum and how their lives or those of their partners now depend on politicians reaching an agreement.

Pauline, Centre Val de Loire

“We are physically not up to another house move. If we have to go back it could only be as refugees.”

My husband and I retired to France in 2010 and rely on health cover through S1 with a top-up mutuelle. He’s now 69 and I’m 68.

In 2014 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I have medication for that four times a day, plus an osteoporosis pill once a week, and paracetamol two or three times daily.

I also have physiotherapy twice a week. All covered by CPAM. About four years ago my husband had treatment for prostate cancer: consultancy, operation and ongoing monitoring all covered by CPAM. New glasses, dental work for both of us, the CPAM contribution is not insignificant. Breast cancer scans, cervical smears, Flu vaccines… the list goes on.

I haven’t tried to work out how much all that would cost if we had to pay for it. I’m sure we’re better off than some – we both have the UK state pension and work pensions, and savings to fall back on.

But our entire income is in sterling, and we rely on the exchange rate to keep our heads above water. Since June 2016 the stress has been unrelenting.

Every so often there’s another turn of the screw. It’s torture. I’m now on sleeping pills and anti-depressants.

I’m like a zombie, wishing that it would all just go away. It’s putting an immense strain on our relationship.

England seems to me to be a foreign country compared with the one I lived in for nearly 60 years. I’ve applied for Irish nationality but that’s just one more thing to stress about.

We have no children and my husband’s only brother died three years ago. What is back in England for us? We are physically not up to another house move.

If we have to go back it could only be as refugees, we would have to leave everything behind. The thought of that breaks my heart.


Val Johnstone, Tarn et Garonne

“There is no way we could afford health care without reciprocal agreements.”

We have lived in France 18 years, we are now in our seventies.

Three years ago my husband, who has had an artificial leg from childhood and needs medical help with that often, found he had lymphoma stage 5.

He had a session of chemotherapy but it returned and he was in the middle of more treatment when he suffered a stroke.

He is in hospital again with chicken pox because he has low immunity to catching diseases.

Once recovered from that he will need more chemo, physio for his hand and arm that no longer work and probably more hospitalisation.

We are very involved in French community life here and even though we had all our working life in the UK, now consider France our home. 

There is no way we could afford health care without reciprocal agreements and we do of course have health insurance here and carte vitale.

We will never go back. Our lives are here now. We have been affected very much by the stress and worry about our future health problems. Healthcare is our biggest worry.


Peter Thomson, Haute Vienne

“Without healthcare we will have no option but to do so and add to the burden of an already overcrowded NHS.”

We are not in a financial position to fund our healthcare needs. 

My wife suffers from acute rheumatoid arthritis, which condition is ameliorated and arrested from advancement by a raft of medication that includes a monthly visit to Limoges hospital (50 km distant) for a Roactemra infusion.

We need to continue this treatment to keep her out of pain and with a modicum of mobility and quality of life.

We are contemplating having to return to the UK should Brexit deprive us of our healthcare provisions along with our residency.

My wife is 75 years of age and I will be 80 shortly. We have our house on the market and have reduced the price by €90,000 to encourage a sale.

We do not want to leave France or return to the UK.

Without healthcare we will have no option but to do so and add to the burden of an already overcrowded NHS.

We will have no choice but to do so and arrive in the UK no better than refugees. We could stay here if the government would promise to continue the current S1 arrangement. We would be in our own home, receiving the treatment we receive now, and avoid burdening the NHS with our presence and health conditions.

Member comments

  1. Given all the stories about NHS and the wait times to see a specialist (e.g. months to a year), these expats get/expect health benefits far in excess of what they would get back in England. I understand that health care is expensive and few can afford it outside of government provided health care. But if I was a pensioner with serious health care problems, I would become an expat somewhere in the EU.

  2. I understand the concerns of these people, but why would you relocate to another country and live there for say 18 years as one couple have, and not seek citizenship? They state that they would never want to return to the UK, so why leave yourself potentially in limbo by not taking that step? As for having pension etc in sterling – that’s just currency fluctuation and something that anybody relocating needs to take into account. It could happen at any time, for any reason. The majority of UK citizens voted for Brexit and it’s not the UK government being difficult about resolving these sort of issues. It’s the EU which is heavy handedly making “an example” of the UK to discourage other countries which are fed up with the dictatorship of the EU from leaving.

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.