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HEALTH INSURANCE

Why getting rescued in the Swiss Alps could cost you thousands

With holidays just around the corner, many mountain enthusiasts will be heading for the Alpine peaks. An important thing to remember is that even in the summer, accidents can happen and mountain rescue in Switzerland can come at a high price.

Why getting rescued in the Swiss Alps could cost you thousands
Rega on a rescue mission in the Swiss Alps. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

It is true that statistically most mishaps in the mountains are related to winter sports — skiing, snowboarding and the like.

About 50,000 accidents a year are recorded in the Swiss Alps each winter, “the vast majority of which are linked to skiing and snowboarding, the two disciplines that also generate the highest costs”, according to Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (SUVA).

While summer mountain activities seem to be less risky, accidents can — and do — happen nevertheless. Again according to SUVA, such popular activities as base jumping, rock climbing, or hiking on unsteady surfaces can result in accidents.

In fact, the mere fact of just hiking can prove dangerous: every year, some people are attacked by cows while strolling in the mountains. One such case involved two hikers who were knocked to the ground by a cow in Nidwalden — an incident which inflicted bruises and shock on the hikers (the cow was fine).

But you don’t have to be an extreme sports enthusiast or approach cattle to sustain injuries in the mountains — just ask David, a UK national living in Vaud.

In July 2021, David rode his mountain bike near Arosa, Graubünden, when he hit a rock and fell into a metre-deep crack, breaking his foot in the process. Passersby called for help.

“A helicopter came and three people got me out of the ditch, stabilised me ,and airlifted me to the nearest hospital”, he said

The final bill just for the rescue amounted to 3,200 francs.

While it may seem like a steep price for a service that “took one hour tops”, this sum is not exorbitant or even unreasonable.

What you should know

Mountain rescues are generally provided by air ambulance services such as Rega, Air Glaciers or Air Zermatt. All three work on a subscription model, meaning people can become donors, which could, in certain cases, lower the cost of a rescue.

As Rega, the largest of the three services, noted on its website, it can, “at its own discretion and within the bounds of its resources, waive or reduce the costs of any emergency services”.

This was not the case for David who had no subscription, but has taken out one since the accident.

READ MORE: Rega: What you need to know about Switzerland’s air rescue service

Mountain biking can sometimes be dangerous. Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

The exact cost of the rescue varies according to three criteria, Rega spokesperson Emilie Pralong told Le Temps newspaper in an interview.

These criteria are “the duration of the mission, the transport costs (pilot, paramedic, helicopter), and the services of the emergency doctor”.

At a rate of around 100 francs per minute of flight, the bill can quickly skyrocket but in the easily accessible mountain area (as was the case for David) ranges from 2,500 to 3,500 francs charged to the patient.

Does health insurance bear at least part of these costs?

Unlike its Alpine neighbour Austria, where public health insurance will pay for mountain air rescue only if the patient is in danger of death, things are a bit different in Switzerland, where health insurance is private.

In Switzerland, the mandatory accident insurance paid by the employer covers the cost of rescues, even if you are not physically injured, according to Moneyland.ch consumer website.

On the other hand, for children, pensioners or people without professional activity, “the compulsory health insurance will cover half of rescue costs up to the maximum amount of 5,000 francs per calendar year,” said Pascal Vuistiner, spokesperson for Groupe Mutuel’s Romandie.

There are also additional insurance policies that will cover unpaid costs, including those incurred abroad, especially as the basic Swiss plan only covers rescues in Switzerland.

For instance, many supplemental health plans include some coverage for search and rescue costs, medical transportation, and repatriation.

Coverage for search and rescue operations is typically limited, ranging between 10,000 and 100,000 francs. Many (but not all) Swiss supplemental health insurance offers include unlimited coverage for ambulance transportation and repatriation to Switzerland for medical care.

READ MORE : Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?  

Coverage for search and rescue and/or emergency medical transportation is also part of many travel insurances.

However, “with very few exceptions, coverage for search and rescue operations is limited. Maximum benefits can be as low as just 5,000 francs, or as high as 60,000 francs”, according to Moneyland.

In David’s case, most of the costs of his airlift, surgery, hospital stay and post-op physical therapy were covered by the above-mentioned insurance policies. The only thing hurt in the long run is his pride, as this was the only fall the experienced mountain biker has suffered in his life.

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HEALTH

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I’m abroad?

Given how expensive health insurance premiums are in Switzerland, you may be tempted to suspend your policy while you are abroad. Is this possible?

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I'm abroad?

Unlike the obligatory car insurance, which you can suspend temporarily by depositing your registration plates at the local motor vehicles office, rules pertaining to health insurance are much stricter.

As the Federal Office of Public Health explains it, “If you leave the country for a certain period to travel or study but do not take up residence abroad, you are still required to have [health] insurance in Switzerland”.

In other words, as long as you are a registered resident of Switzerland, regardless of your nationality or passport, you must keep your compulsory Swiss health insurance and pay your premiums. While you do this, you also remain covered against most medical emergencies while you travel.

However, rules are less stringent for supplemental health plans which can, in some cases, be put on hold, depending on the insurance provider, according to Switzerland’s Moneyland consumer website.

The only exception allowed for suspending the health insurance coverage is during a military or civil protection service which lasts more than 60 consecutive days.

“During these periods, the risks of illness and accident are covered by military insurance. Your health insurance provider will refund your premiums”, according to FOPH.

Under what circumstances can you cancel your Swiss health insurance?

Swiss law says you can cancel your insurance if you are moving abroad, either permanently for for a period exceeding three months.

If you do so, only claims for treatments given while you still lived in Switzerland will be paid by your insurance; any medical bills for treatment incurred after you officially leave will be denied.

These are the procedures for cancelling your compulsory health insurance if you leave the country under conditions mentioned above

To announce your departure abroad, you must send your insurance carrier a letter including your name, customer number or AVS/AHV number.

You must also include a certificate from your place of residence in Switzerland confirming that you have de-registered from your current address, as well as the date of your departure.

Note, however, that if your new destination is another Swiss community / canton, rather than a foreign country, your insurance can only be cancelled from the following calendar year and only if you present proof of having taken up a new policy with another company.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

You can find out more information about this process here

If you suspend your health insurance for less than six years, you can reactivate it at a later date with the same company when you return to Switzerland.

READ MORE : What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad
 

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