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HEALTH INSURANCE

Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

The alpine country has a few peculiarities in its health system - starting with the fact that it is mandatory to be insured. Here's an overview.

Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system
There are many things about Austria's health system that can surprise foreigners (Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash)

When it comes to Austria’s health system, a few things always surprise foreigners. For example, unlike some other countries, like the United States, Brazil, or India, residents in Austria are obliged to have public health insurance.

Enrolment is generally automatic and linked to employment. A vast majority of workers are insured by ÖGK through their employer. Still, many, such as self-employed people, will have their insurance with SVS or BVAEB, in the case of public servants.  

Insurance is also guaranteed to co-insured persons, such as spouses and dependents, pensioners, students, disabled people, and those receiving unemployment benefits.

“People are surprised about the amount of different health insurance providers, all of which are part of the public system”, says Miglena Hofer, senior legal counsel at Austria For Beginners

The Local spoke to her and Severina Ditzov, also a senior legal counsel with the company focusing on easing the integration process of expats and their families, to understand a few of the things that can be most surprising about the health care system for those coming into Austria. 

Different insurers, different systems

Austrian health care is universal, and contributions are mandatory – with few exceptions. However, one thing that will surprise many people is that your insurance fund can differ depending on your occupation.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s e-card? Everything you need to know

For example, most people in the country are insured by the Österreichische Gesundheitskasse (ÖGK), with about 7.4 million insured people in Austria (some 82 per cent of the population). 

However, civil or public servants, miners, and persons employed with the federal railways are insured by BVAEB. According to the company, more than 1.1 million people in Austria are insured with it. 

Additionally, the self-employed, freelancers and farmers will be insured by SVS

There is also the General Accident Insurance Fund (AUVA) for accident insurance and the pension fund Pension Insurance Fund (PVA), to which all residents contribute. 

“People are, of course, surprised to find out that each provider offers different coverage”, highlights Miglena. This means that not every doctor will work with all ÖGK, SVS, and BVAEB, for example. Therefore, it’s essential to check whether the doctors you are going to work with your insurer.

Even more, the insurers might cover different things or pay in different ways. “Some of the public insurances, like SVS and BVA, have self participation. The fund will cover 90 per cent of the treatment, and the rest will be paid by the patient”, Severina explains.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How freelancers in Austria can pay four times less in social insurance

This can be particularly surprising for people changing insurers, for example, those who went from being formally employed by a company with ÖGK to being a self-employed person insured with SVS.

On top of that, people can have private insurance

Austria works with a two-tier system, so besides the mandatory public insurance, residents can also have their own private policies. 

So, additionally, from the public contribution to the state funds, they can pay private companies to provide health care policies too. Doctors can also choose to work with public or only private patients – or both.

“Public doctors may also have private practices, and they are not obligated to have them in two different places”, says Severina.

“It is very common that the doctor works as a public doctor on Mondays and Wednesdays and private doctor on Tuesday and Friday, or private before noon and the public after 12pm, for example”. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Am I liable for ambulance costs in Austria?

A receptionist would need to tell the patient beforehand if the examination will be private or not, and the information should also be available online, but sometimes they forget to inform, or the person doesn’t correctly check and gets thoroughly surprised when receiving a bill at the end of the consultation.

There is also a difference between Wahlarzt and a Privatarzt. “While both are private doctors, you only get partially reimbursed by the public insurance if you go to a Wahlarzt”, Miglena clarifies. 

A different style of medicine

The style of the consultations can also be shocking to foreigners. 

“Austrian doctors, especially those working with public insurance, are not very empathic or chatty”, Miglena says. “During your appointment, you hardly speak to the doctor as they jump from one room to another”, she adds.  

It is not rare for consultations to last just a few minutes, a drastic change for people from South America, for example, where doctors sometimes spend 30 to 60 minutes talking to patients. 

Another substantial difference is that Austrian medicine is very much focused on prevention and natural remedies, with many doctors prescribing teas and exercise to patients used to getting prescriptions for anxiety and sleeping pills in the United States, for example. 

Pollyanna, a Brazilian who has been living in Vienna for four years, tells how she had difficulties finding a prescription to take the medicine she was used to and that helped her sleep: “The doctor didn’t even want me to take melatonin, let alone my usual prescription medicine”.

Her husband, who is an American, went through a similar situation and felt the difference between doctors in the United States and in Austria.

This style of medicine, one that focuses on prevention and self-recovery, makes it common for people with the flu to be sent home with the recommendation to rest and also creates one of the most unusual things for many expats in Austria: the fact that the public healthcare system will cover a weeks-long stay at a spa.

The expert advice

If any of these quirks, especially the quick consultations with long waiting times, bothers you, you might want to invest in additional private insurance, according to the expert lawyers.

“Sadly, one gets treated way better if they have private insurance”, Miglena says. “Suddenly, every doctor speaks English and is friendly to you, looks you in the eyes, and doesn’t mind answering your questions in detail”. 

“With public insurance, one has to wait for approximately four to eight weeks for examination with a specialist; private insurance can get you faster appointments,” Severina adds.

If you are looking for a doctor – private or not- Austria’s DocFinder.at is a good tool with filters to help you find a doctor based on your insurer or which languages they speak.

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WEATHER

Wild weather in Austria: How to protect yourself during summer storms

With violent storms becoming increasingly common in Austria, here’s how to protect yourself (and your home) this summer.

Wild weather in Austria: How to protect yourself during summer storms

Storms are a regular occurrence in Austria during the summer months, but the strength and frequency seems to be increasing.

Overnight on Tuesday, June 28th, both the Pöllinger and the Treffner rivers in Carinthia burst their banks causing widespread flooding, mudslides and damage across the region.

Reports on Wednesday morning said the villages of Treffen am Ossiacher See and Arriach (Villach-Land district) were still metres under water and several people had been rescued from the deluge.

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Austria

According to ORF, emergency services were still struggling to reach some areas and there were unconfirmed reports of missing people.

A Tweet from Unwetter-Freaks said: “Bad pictures from #Arriach in #Kärnten , which was hit by several storm cells last night. According to ORF, the place is currently cut off from the outside world and cannot be reached by the emergency services.”

Earlier this week, rural areas in Upper Austria were also hit by storms (overnight, June 27th) bringing torrential rain and hail the size of golf balls, which caused extensive damage to crops and grassland in the key agricultural state.

READ ALSO: 23 essential articles to help you navigate life in Austria

The Klaus reservoir had to be drained of 200 cubic metres of water to avoid flooding and trees were brought down across the province by wind gusts – some up to 91 km/h.

The Kronen Zeitung reports the storm caused damage to around 16,000 hectares of agriculture land, with insurers estimating the cost to be up to €6.5 million.

One Tweet showed the size of the hail on Monday night and read: “In the night we had ‘light’ hail.”

Storms then hit the region again on Tuesday night leading to a lightning strike on a hay barn in the Mühlviertel and the flooding of an underground car park in Linz.

With the summer season far from over and the possibility of more wild weather in the coming months, here’s how to stay safe during storms in Austria.

FOR MEMBERS: When and where to avoid driving in Austria this summer

Check the weather report

It might sound obvious, but checking the weather forecast should be at the top of the list of summer storm preparations.

Unlike in the past, weather reports are now typically reliable, and apps like Bergfex and Accuweather are well-known for providing detailed forecasts and weather warnings.

However, long-range forecasts can change quickly, so if you’re planning a camping or hiking trip, be sure to check the weather between 24 and 48 hours before to avoid being caught out.

Additionally, the Österreichischen Unwetterzentrale (Austrian Severe Weather Centre) has regular updates about storms and weather forecasts for Austria and users can sign up for email and SMS notifications.

Stay indoors

According to the organisation, Die Helfer Wiens (The Helpers of Vienna) one of the biggest risks during a storm is being hit by a fallen tree or flying debris.

For this reason, they advise people (and pets) to stay indoors during a storm and close all windows and doors. 

If staying in a tent or campervan, it’s also a good idea to seek shelter in a building (if possible) until the storm has passed.

However, if you are outside during lightning, the Austrian Red Cross says the best approach is to crouch down into a ball to reduce the amount of contact you have with the floor.

READ MORE: How to keep your apartment cool in Austria this summer amid rising energy prices

Stay away from the cellar

Cellars and underground car parks can quickly become flooded during heavy rain – as seen in recent storms in Upper Austria and Carinthia, and last year during violent storms across Austria.

Flash flooding can happen quickly (the clue is in the name), so stay away from cellars and underground spaces during a storm and call the emergency services if you suspect a flood in your home.

Remove plants and furniture from balconies

Having plants and flowers on a balcony is a lovely way to brighten up an outside space, but they risk being damaged during a storm.

To safeguard your pots and lovingly-planted flora, move them inside – especially during a thunderstorm with strong wind gusts and lightning.

The same applies to any outdoor furniture that could be damaged by wind or hail, like cushions, decorative objects and sun umbrellas.

Park cars under shelter

Hail is one of the leading causes of dents to bodywork on cars and damage to windscreens, both of which can be costly to repair.

If hail is forecast during a storm, park a car in a garage or under shelter, if possible. 

If strong wind is expected, then avoid parking a car under trees as debris, or even the tree itself, could end up landing on the vehicle.

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: How Austria banned everyone from the forest for 123 years

Don’t go into the forest

Whether walking or driving, the best advice is to stay from the forest or areas with lots of trees during a storm.

While sheltering under a tree can protect from rain or hail, lightning or strong wind can bring down trees. This makes the forest a dangerous place to be in a storm.

But if you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of being in a forest when a thunderstorm hits, stay away from low branches and tree trunks and crouch down low. Place any walking sticks or metal poles away from you and stay away from metal fences.

Avoid risky activities

Certain outdoor activities are especially hazardous if there’s a lightning storm. 

Any activity in an open area or that puts you into contact with water or metal is strongly advised against. So that means fishing, swimming, boating, cycling and golfing are out until the storm is over. 

Keep torches and candles ready

Power cuts are common during storms, so keep a stock of candles and torches ready in case you end up without electricity for several hours.

It’s also a good idea to have a portable USB charger to make sure your phone doesn’t run out of battery during an emergency.

Who to call in an emergency

These are the numbers to call if you need help from the Austrian emergency services during a storm.

122 – fire service (Feuerwehr).

133 – police (Polizei).

144 – ambulance (Krankenwagen or Rettungswagen).

120 – ÖAMTC emergency breakdown service.

123 – ARBÖ emergency breakdown service.

140 – mountain rescue.

Finally, 112 is the single European emergency number, whose operators will direct you to the relevant services. This number can even be called on a locked mobile phone without needing the pin.

Find out more with The Local’s guide on who to call and what to say in an emergency.

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