How this expat family navigated Switzerland’s health insurance ‘minefield’

Moving to a new country can be challenging, even for seasoned expats. Throw relocating with a family and Switzerland’s notorious health insurance jungle into the mix and even thinking about the move can leave you feeling exhausted.

How this expat family navigated Switzerland’s health insurance ‘minefield’

Just ask Stefan Heusser who, in January this year, relocated from South Africa to Switzerland with his family. With his wife and two children planning to join him at the end of March, he immediately went into research mode to make sure everything was in order for their arrival. 

What Stefan discovered what that health insurance in Switzerland is mandatory and finding the right cover isn’t as straightforward as one would hope.

“When I arrived, I didn’t know anything about how the system worked. I thought I had it figured out because there was a lot of information online so I tried to do it myself. I kept being hit with bureaucracy and things I didn’t understand, so it was an uphill battle,” he tells The Local.

Stefan found himself in a race against the clock when he received a warning from the municipality that he only had two weeks to take out cover before being penalised.

“All the different options are really hard to understand, so at the beginning it was a bit of a minefield. After three months you have to have compulsory medical insurance and because I’d tried to do it myself, I was running out of time. I actually got quite stressed,” recalls Stefan.

It was then that Stefan’s wife took matters into her own hands, turning to Facebook to find someone who could help. 

She was contacted by Benjamin Wagner from Expat-Savvy, an insurance consultancy company dedicated to English speakers living in Switzerland. Benjamin reassured the Heussers that he could make sure the whole family was covered by all the necessary insurances.

Click here to start building your custom healthcare plan with Expat Savvy

“After a quick chat he really put me at ease,” says Stefan. “Just a couple of days later he got back to me with all my options and talked me through it so it really simplified the process. For me it was a massive relief because I’d been banging my head against the wall for two months and then he did it in a couple of days!” 

Benjamin, who has been working in the insurance industry for the last 14 years, explains that taking out health insurance should be the first step when moving to Switzerland. It’s something the Expat-Savvy team can deftly arrange for expats in Switzerland.

But the company’s services don’t end there.

“We do all kinds of insurance,” says Benjamin. “For expats, the most important is usually health insurance because it’s mandatory, but whatever you need to insure, we can cover.”

Once the mandatory insurance had been arranged for the Heussers, they set out to make sure all other bases were covered. Stefan was shocked to learn that in Switzerland you are required to pay for ambulance call-outs, but he was pleased to discover that things like physiotherapy and chiropractic are included in his cover. 

He believes the biggest benefit of using Expat-Savvy was having someone on hand to help navigate the Swiss insurance system. It’s an added bonus that Benjamin was able to help Stefan shave 200 CHF off what he would have otherwise paid.

Click here to start building your insurance plan

“It is very difficult to get by in Switzerland without German — even though I speak German I still couldn’t make it through the system. To guide you through the bureaucracy and the complications and to save you money in the end, I’d definitely recommend it. If I’d known about Expat-Savvy before, I wouldn’t have tried to do it myself!”

Benjamin adds, “It’s very important when you come to Switzerland that someone explains to you how the system works because it’s not so easy. We explain it in an easy way, so they don’t lose themselves in the jungle of possibilities.”

Expat-Savvy helps many new and established expats to get the best deal on their Swiss health insurance. The insurance consultancy company prides itself on its ongoing relationships with clients, spanning from their first medical insurance to optimising their premiums, specialising retirement plans, and everything in between.

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Expat-Savvy.

For members


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

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 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.