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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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LIVING IN AUSTRIA

Eight habits that show you’ve embraced life in Austria

Living anywhere as an international resident will have an impact on your life, but if you recognise any of these habits then you have truly embraced the Austrian lifestyle.

Eight habits that show you’ve embraced life in Austria

Life in Austria can be similar to many other European countries, but there are some aspects that are distinctly Austrian.

Here are eight habits that show you’ve integrated into the Austrian way of life.

FOR MEMBERS: 23 essential articles to help you navigate life in Austria

Indulging in coffee and cake

Coffee and cake is almost as integral to the food culture in Austria as the Wiener Schnitzel.

So say goodbye to the diet, ignore any thoughts of guilt and get stuck into a slice of Sachertorte, Punschkrapfen or Linzer Torte

Preferably with a delicious coffee on the side.

READ MORE: Caffeine, war and Freud: A history of Vienna’s iconic coffee houses

Participating in winter sports

Austria, especially the west of the country, is a winter sports enthusiasts dream.

The Alps offer an almost endless choice in ski resorts, gondolas and mountain huts, with winter sports options ranging from skiing and snowboarding to snowshoeing and Langlaufen (cross-country skiing).

Needless to say, if you live in the Alps, winter sports quickly become a central part of the lifestyle during the cold months. After all, it’s healthy, fun and even a bit dangerous (if that’s your thing).

It’s also a great way to explore the landscape of Austria and get a deeper understanding of the central role of winter sports in Austrian culture.

Downing tools for lunch

Lunch in some other countries (especially places like the UK) is often a sad sandwich while sitting at a desk. 

In Austria however, lunch is an important part of the day and many people sit down at midday with their colleagues or families to enjoy a proper cooked meal.

This is a prime example of the healthy work-life balance that residents in Austria enjoy, and is a much-better habit to embrace than working through a lunch break.

Wearing house shoes

In most Austrian households, people do not wear outdoor shoes inside. Instead, they opt for house shoes, otherwise known as slippers in English or Schlapfen in some Austrian dialects.

Also, many Austrian homes do not have carpet on the floor, which means walking around with bare feet or just socks in the winter can get cold – fast.

So if you’ve invested in a pair of house shoes or, even better, you have a backup supply for guests, then you have fully embraced life in Austria. 

READ ALSO: ‘I’ll probably return to the UK’: Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

Being punctual

Typically, Austrians are punctual people and don’t appreciate lateness.

For this reason, many international residents make an extra effort to be on time (or early), and it’s not uncommon to become stressed if you know you will be five minutes late.

As frustrating as this can be, it’s actually incredibly polite to be early for a meeting and not a bad habit to pick up.

sparkling water

(Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash)

Drinking sparkling water

People like to drink sparkling mineral water in Austria.

In fact, sparkling water is so popular that if you order a Mineralwasser (mineral water) in a cafe or restaurant, the sparkling variety is often served unless stilles Wasser (still water) is specified.

Want to be more Austrian? Then simply switch from still to sparkling water.

Stripping off

Countries in Central Europe are much more comfortable with nudity than other nations, and it’s no different in Austria.

The main place to expect an encounter with naked people in Austria is at the sauna. There are even some saunas that have a naked-only admission policy and won’t let people in if they are wearing swimming gear.

People also like to get naked at lakes – especially at the more remote or quieter locations – or at least go topless (for the women). 

The reality is, no one bats an eyelid. So put your prudish instincts aside and don’t be afraid to strip off.

READ ALSO: What are the rules on working overtime in Austria?

Taking sick leave

Employees in Austria are entitled to six weeks of paid sick leave (the number of weeks increases the longer the worker has been employed in the same company).

This means workers are more likely to take sick leave if they are unwell, rather than dragging themselves into the workplace and infecting their colleagues.

The downside though is that Austria has strict rules when it comes to taking sick leave with explicit orders to stay at home. Workers can even expect to be monitored by private detectives to make sure they really are resting at home, as reported by The Local.

For international residents in Austria, this can be hard to tolerate. But the upside is that you’re not expected to show your face in the office when sick, simply to comply with a culture of presenteeism.

And that’s a habit worth embracing.

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