Foreign inmates fall through health insurance cracks

Equality of health care in Swiss prisons has been thrown into doubt Keystone

Some 2,000 foreign prisoners sitting in Swiss jails may only be eligible for emergency medical care because they lack insurance for routine treatment, Swiss public television SRF reported.

This content was published on July 18, 2016 - 15:00

The Tagesschau news programme aired evidence of a 61-year-old inmate in a Zurich prison who has been denied medical help to treat a restricted urethra because he does not have health insurance and the condition is non-emergency.

He has fallen between the cracks for lack of Swiss residency or other temporary travel papers. Bruno Gravier, president of the Swiss prison doctors’ association, said this case might be in breach of international law that demands inmates receive the same medical attention as other citizens.

“This is a clear violation of the medical code that Switzerland has signed up (for) and which is recognized internationally,” he told the news programme. Furthermore, Gravier believes that this “inhumane situation – a veritable tragedy” may not be isolated.

Gravier estimates about 2,000 of the 4,900 foreign inmates in Switzerland may only be eligible for emergency treatment due to their lack of health insurance, which is mandatory for all Swiss residents.

The Swiss Federal Office for Public Health admitted there may well be a problem. “We really do need to see if some potential solutions present themselves,” Daniel Koch, head of communicable diseases at the ministry, told Tagesschau. This might mean direct intervention from the government, he added.

At present, the situation on foreign inmate health coverage varies according to the canton that runs the prison. Among Switzerland’s 26 cantons, for example, Geneva and Vaud provide full health care by covering the missing insurance costs. This is not the case in Zurich.

“The rejection of the assumption of costs by the authorities is lawful,” Zurich’s cantonal authorities told Tagesschau in a statement.

This is not the first time SRF has reported on less than satisfactory prison conditions in Switzerland. Last month, it uncovered a report criticising conditions for the 132 inmates currently serving life in Swiss jails.

Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian Nathalie Rickli rejected the report’s criticism, saying conditions in Swiss jails are good by international standards.

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