I get a lot emails from both travelers and expats asking me about staying healthy in Italy and healthcare options. The first thing I do is reassure them that they have nothing to worry about. First of all it’s Italy, so as Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine!”
Of course, a nice healthy plate of pasta won’t really help you if you get hit by a renegade Vespa. In that case, take comfort in knowing that the Emergency Rooms (pronto soccorso) in Italy are well-staffed and—get this—FREE. Yes, that’s right. It’s free of charge for citizens, residents, illegal aliens, and tourists.
Here are some useful phone numbers:
- 118: Ambulance (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.)
- 115: Fire Department
- 113: Police Department
- 112: Carabinieri (sort of a cross between the military police and F.B.I.)
Well, hopefully it won’t come to that. But if you want to have some extra peace of mind, then you can always buy insurance. The type of insurance that you’ll need will depend on your length of stay.
Staying Healthy in Italy
First, it’s possible that your foreign carrier might cover you in Italy. BUT, of course you’d have to pay up front, and then fight an endless battle to get reimbursed once you return to your home country, which may or may not happen. So…
For tourist visiting for a few weeks, a few months, and all the way up to a year, all you really need is traveler’s insurance. It’s not really intended to be comprehensive coverage for every little head cold, but it will take care of any unfortunate hospital stay, should you need it.
Check out Atlas Travel Insurance. It’s affordable, and you can customize your coverage from 5 to 364 days, which includes 24-hour travel services such as lost luggage and travel document recovery. It also meets the insurance requirement for your Schengen Visa.
If you’re staying longer, you may elect to purchase “expat insurance” through a foreign insurance company. The main advantage of this type of policy is that treatment is unrestricted and you can choose any doctor, specialist, clinic, or hospital in Italy. Compared to the Italian state-sponsored system (SSN), it’s expensive, but compared to equivalent coverage in the US, it’s a steal. I used a company called Helvetia from Switzerland.
Speaking of which, if you are a legal resident with a Permesso di Soggiorno, then you have an opportunity to participate in the national healthcare system. This is called, voluntary subscription (l‘iscrizione volontaria). Here is the website with all the information: Assistenza Sanitaria. Unfortunately, they have been updating the website recently. As of March, 2015, they English version is not yet available. But check it anyway. By the time you read this, maybe it’s been updated.
A quick word or two about pharmacies and medications. Pharmacies in Italy operate totally differently than in the U.S.—there are no big drugstores like Walgreen’s or CVS. Opposite to the US system, in Italy OTC drugs are quite expensive while prescription drugs are either free or very cheap (provided that they were prescribed by an Italian doctor, of course).
If you take any regular meds, I’d suggest that you bring enough to cover you for the entire length of your stay, if possible. If not, then go to the Guardia Medica and ask them for assistance.
Well, I know we don’t like to think about these things, but to enjoy “the sweet life,” you need to stay healthy. So do like Hippocrates suggests and just go find some pasta and wine! In Italy, it’s easier than falling off a Vespa.
*(P.S. If you want to read the full account of my first experience with the Italian Healthcare System, you can read this post: Healthcare in Italy)