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HEALTH

‘Three million tests a week’: Has Austria got the right Covid strategy?

While Austria has struggled to contain the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, it is fast emerging as a world leader in testing as a way to reopen schools and businesses.

'Three million tests a week': Has Austria got the right Covid strategy?
A coronavirus testing centre in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

The small nation with a population of just under nine million tested three million people last week alone, with the mass-testing strategy forming a key plank for getting pupils back into the classroom.

Half of those three million tests were administered in schools, where twice-weekly tests have been mandatory since in-person lessons restarted earlier this month.

Only a tiny percentage of parents have refused to have their children tested under the scheme — and those children are not allowed to return to school.

The other 1.5 million tests were carried out at more than 500 dedicated centres, around 900 pharmacies and roughly 1,000 companies.

“Our strategy is to have a high frequency of tests and to make them very easily accessible — it’s the only way to keep the pandemic in check,” Katharina Reich, the health ministry’s chief medical officer, told AFP.

A negative test result, no older than 48 hours, is now required at a range of locations — from hair salons to elderly care homes, or ski resorts.

The seven-day average of daily tests is 24 per 1,000 in Austria, compared to 7.7 in Britain and just 1.77 in neighbouring Germany, according to the Our World In Data website.

READ MORE: How Austria plans to test its way out of lockdown 

“But we want that to be higher — much higher,” Reich said, explaining that the goal is “for 60 to 70 percent of the population to get tested at least twice a week, or even three times a week if they want to see risk groups, like the elderly.”

She says tests are a key weapon in the fight against the pandemic until the vaccine rollout has been completed.

From March 1, every person will be allocated up to five “living-room” antigen tests, so called because they only require a shallow swab of the nasal cavity and so can be done at home. 

‘Return to normality’

Yveta Unzeitig, who has already been tested several times because the publishing house she works at participates in the testing drive, said she thought expanding tests was a good idea.

“It sounds smart, but they should do it for everything — with a negative test, I’d also like to be able to go to a restaurant, or for a coffee with friends,” she said, referring to the still closed hospitality industry.

“It sounds like it’d make all of us safer, and like we’d then able to return to normality,” said her daughter Yvonne, who works at an insurance company.

Professor Monika Redlberger-Fritz, head of department at Medical University Vienna’s centre for virology, says that turning up as many cases as possible through testing is “very, very important”.

However, she cautions that a negative antigen result from a nose or throat swab only shows that the person is not highly contagious — not that he or she is not contagious at all.

“Just because you take the test, that doesn’t mean that you can go straight to your grandma and hug her and kiss her,” she said.

FFP2 masks and an interpersonal distance of two metres (six feet) continue to be mandatory in places like stores and public buildings.

Like elsewhere, Austria is also contending with the spread of virus mutations, including the more infectious South African variant. 

Pandemic fatigue

How successful the millions of tests have been will be evaluated over the coming weeks, especially by looking at changes in intensive care unit capacities, said Redlberger-Fritz.

Increasing testing is partly a response to growing resistance to lockdowns — hundreds now protest against the government’s pandemic measures every weekend — and a widespread “pandemic fatigue”.

The first mass testing drives began late last year, but the initiative seemed to falter as relatively few people turned up to the designated centres: “Mass tests without masses,” ran the headlines.

However, making tests mandatory for some sectors and investing more in public awareness campaigns seems to have had the desired effect.

At one pharmacy in Vienna, 21-year-old Sascha said he, like many Austrians in recent weeks, had got a test “to be able to get a haircut”.

But he said he finds the requirement “arduous” and says he will only get tested — or vaccinated — if he absolutely has to.

Member comments

  1. I took my wife to be tested yesterday at the Vienna Centre Drive in. Superb service, well organised, courteous and free. Well done Austria.

    That said, the ONLY way we will all survive this is Vaccinations. Where are they? I do not blame the Austrian Government directly. They were conned/forced to go with the EU and its singularly and tragically failed Vaccine Procurement Scheme. Meanwhile, people across Europe are dying needlessly when a jab would have saved them, delayed by the EU Commission, its arrogance, stupidity and sheer incompetence.

    And as an aside where is President Macron who insisted the EU rely on French made vaccine to make up a large part of the EU’s vaccine supply, only to find that the French vaccine was complete scrap. You really couldn’t make it up. And now President Macron has the utter gaul (pardon the pun) to criticise the UK in some vile attempt to deflect blame, as he sees Marie Le Pen coming over the horizon waving a one way ticket for Macron from the Elysee Palace?

    Meanwhile the dying continues?

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HEALTH

When can I ask for reimbursement for medical expenses in Austria?

If you visit an 'elective doctor' in Austria or go for certain procedures and examinations, you might have to pay the costs upfront. But when will your statutory health insurance reimburse you?

When can I ask for reimbursement for medical expenses in Austria?

Austria’s health system can seem complicated. Most people are insured by statutory insurance companies, ensuring they receive quality care for free in the country. 

However, there may be times when you want to go the private route – be it for specific examinations, or if you are searching for a particular specialist or, most commonly, if you just can’t or won’t wait to get an appointment via the public system. As the number of public doctors drops, more and more people have reached out to the “elective” doctors, or to private laboratories for certain exams instead of waiting weeks in the public system.

In those cases, the public health insurance funds often reimburse your expenses, at least partially. 

READ ALSO: Six things to know about visiting a doctor in Austria

When can I ask for reimbursement?

There are several cases when you can be reimbursed by Austria’s largest health insurance company, the ÖGK. These include:

  • Private or elective doctors: Elective doctors do not have a contract with the Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK). You will therefore be treated there as a private patient and must initially pay for the treatment yourself. In most cases, ÖGK will reimburse part of the costs.
  • Dental Health: In addition to conservative dental treatment and dentures, the ÖGK dental services also include jaw adjustments (braces).
  • CT, MRI and x-rays: Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and X-rays are “diagnostic imaging procedures”. The Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK) covers the costs if the examination is carried out at an authorized institute.
  • Therapists: the ÖGK will cover costs for speech therapy, physio therapy and psychotherapy, among others. You can read more HERE.
  • Midwives: Midwives support women during pregnancy, during childbirth and in the initial period afterwards. The Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK) covers certain costs for the midwife.
  • Hospital stays: Persons insured with the Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK) can receive outpatient or inpatient treatment in certain hospitals throughout Austria. The fund will not cover any special fees that are incurred for accommodation in “special class” (some hospitals offer private rooms as special class, for example). For medically necessary treatment in hospitals with which there is no contractual relationship,  ÖGK currently pays a daily care cost allowance of € 399.97, but not more than the actual costs incurred.
  • Medical aids and medication: The Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK) covers the costs of medical aids and aids such as hearing aids, diabetes supplies or bandages if you have a doctor’s prescription for them. The ÖGK also covers medication costs, but you need a prescription from a doctor. 

READ ALSO: How much can you expect to pay for private healthcare in Vienna?

How much will I get?

The reimbursement does not cover the whole cost. Once the reimbursement is approved, you will get 80 percent of what the ÖGK would have paid to the public system. This is not the same as 80 percent of your invoice.

The insurance fund doesn’t always approve invoices, it will evaluate the need and set up limits (so, you won’t get a refund on every doctor’s visit if you go to the same specialist type in a short period, for example). Particularly if you plan on a big expense, it’s worth it to check with the fund beforehand if they would cover the private costs.

How can I claim reimbursement?  

You first need to obtain receipts for all medical expenses, including doctor’s invoices, hospital bills, and pharmacy receipts. You’ll also need to gather payment confirmation. Then, you submit this information as a claim request on the website of your insurance company. With ÖGK, the link is HERE.  

You then wait for the processing time, which can take up to several weeks. If your request is approved, you’ll receive the money back straight to the bank account you have in your account details on the insurance website. 

READ ALSO: Will my Austrian health insurance pay for medical expenses abroad?

What if I have private insurance?

Most private insurance in Austria work with statutory companies. You’ll follow the same exact path. Once you get confirmation of how much the public insurance will reimburse you (or if it won’t reimburse you), you can then send all these documents to your private insurance. They will pay the difference between what you got from the public company and what you paid in private healthcare.

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