Oddfellows – Trying out the Swiss health system

Tony McStea

Bubendorf 9 February 2015

Trying out a healthcare system is not something one normally does just for the fun of it (“I think I’ll drive into that telegraph pole and see how they handle it…”). There are no hypochondriac tendencies among the McSteas, in fact, quite the reverse, which, in turn, led to the aforementioned trying out. Mrs. McStea generally visits the doctor only when at death’s door, but a long-term problem with mild (but increasing) diarrhoea led her there. He sent her off for a colonoscopy. Now, as a seriously old guy, I’ve had one of these, 17 years after I should have. The doctor’s comment was, “One minor bump in there. I removed it. ‘Bye, see you in 5 years”. (For anyone who has never had it done, I recommend looking up Dave Barry’s hilarious description in the “Miami Herald”).

On the other hand, Sue had a polyp that was too big for him to remove. “Hospital job,” he said. So she went into hospital – and it was too big for them to remove. It needed to be shrunk by radiation treatment. At the same time, because of the nature of the polyp, they put her on mild chemotherapy drugs. She had to turn up every day for 6 weeks to this super-dooper all-singing, all-dancing radiation machine, where they would line it up according to the marks they’d made on her body and zap her for 5 minutes. Initially, she was fine, but towards the end the combination of the two made her very tired and quite sick. When the hospital finally got in there, they found virtually no polyp, but as a precaution, they took out one-third of her large intestine and supplied her with a colostomy bag. After one month of this, the bag was removed and the intestines reconnected.

No traces of anything cancerous were detected, in spite of their best efforts to find something – in cases such as hers, they said, there should have been some traces, so they did their darndest to find them. She even came up as a subject at an international oncology conference. Herr Professor, who did the operation (referred to by Sue as Himself – not God, but at least His right-hand man, judging by the way that nurses and junior doctors danced nervously around Him), said that He didn’t think that chemo was necessary, but that some was a wise precaution, but that, if it made her ill, she should stop. Well, it did, and she did – the first infusion knocked her so far back that she needed binoculars just to see the starting line. End of infusion, on to tablets at half-dose. She lasted three days on those, so end of chemo. She’s now at home, shaking off the lingering effects of the chemo drugs. One of the effects of all this is that Sue (155cm) has sunk to just over 38Kg. Not a weight loss regime I’d recommend. It’s clear that one has to be really well in order to withstand hospital treatments for illness.

So, how does one pay? Switzerland has a version of what I suppose could be called Obamacare. We are all compelled to buy basic health insurance (if you can’t afford it, the canton will buy it for you). One can take what’s called a “franchise”, that is, one can elect to pay the first x00 francs of medical costs (this lowers the monthly premiums). Once you have paid the CHFx00, the insurance will pay for 90% of your costs, but with the proviso that you pay no more than CHF700 per adult person per year. So, as we have the maximum possible franchise, CHF2500, Sue’s treatment will have cost us CHF3200. Premiums? Very variable, depending on which company you’re with and in which canton (and even different parts of the same canton can have different rates). Ours, one of the cheaper ones, costs CHF164 per month.

So, is the Unitary Patent Affair all over bar the shouting? The CJEU’s Advocate-General rejected the second Spanish case. The CJEU’s ruling will come later this year. Now the AG’s opinion is precisely that, an opinion, and the CJEU is in no way obliged to follow it. However, it does in 75-80% of the cases.

The more recent Spanish case made some solid points – there are question marks over the status of the EPO (not, you will remember, an EU institution) and more particularly over the position and decisions of the EPO Boards of Appeal, from whose rejection there is no appeal. However, this debate has a political dimension that completely overshadows the legal niceties. The Unitary Patent and Unified Patent Court are starting to take on the inevitability of an idea whose time has finally come. What is proposed is far from perfect, but it appears that the EU has decided that half a loaf is better than none. The EPO’s Select Committee on the Unitary Patent has just published a revised set of Rules of Procedure for the Unitary Patent Court. Many criticisms have been met, at least part-way, but there will be further consultation and further versions.  But no word on proposed fees (yet).

In the meantime, trouble at t’mill continues. More EPO strike action will certainly come, with a large dollop of the examining staff supporting it. There were three strikes in December, starting with a three-day strike on the first week, a four-day strike the week after and a week-long strike from December 15 to 19.Why? Unhappiness with el Presidente Benny the Batt and his alleged autocratic ways. There was general unhappiness when Benny’s initial 5-year term as President was extended for a further three years. Moreover, the terms and conditions of this extension are as murky as the original contract negotiations, and the EPO’s Administrative Council, which theoretically calls the shots, seems to be powerless (or uninterested or completely on side – nobody is exactly sure which). The fact that the AC has turned a completely deaf ear to the EPO’s Staff Union (SUEPO) in its attempts to moderate some of what it sees as Benny’s more excessive actions may indicate a combination of the last two. Benny says it’s all the SUEPO’s fault. But then, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, he would, wouldn’t he?

Another curious feature was the suspension of a Boards of Appeal member, on murky grounds. This is decidedly odd, as the BoA are supposed to be completely independent of the EPO. There are apparently plans by Benny to bring the BoA more within and under the control of the EPO’s normal structure, which makes the independence even more questionable. This in turn could have an impact on the proposed Unitary Patent system. We haven’t heard the last of this mess.

One of the more curious features of Benny’s first contract was apparently that his place of employment was given, not as Munich, but as Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the town of which he was deputy mayor and of whose council he remains a member. It was also the birthplace of Louis XIV the “Sun King”, famous for “L’État, c’est moi”. Perhaps it’s catching. Anyway, the EPO is not a happy ship, which doesn’t augur well for the future. Remember that the USPTO is also not a happy ship, and we all know the mess it’s making of things.

Speaking of which, you’re probably aware of the patent blog IP Watchdog, run by Gene Quinn. Given his rabidly pro-US-style patenting position, Gene is generally entertaining, if occasionally somewhat (sometimes considerably) off the mark. He recently held a webinar entitled “The ramifications of a political patent system”, which featured the distinguished retired CAFC judge Paul Michel. To some extent, it was the old, old story that US patenting pre-AIA was positively Olympian, but has been mucked up by the AIA and the incorrect and inaccurate decisions of the Supreme Court whose interest in patent matters seems to be exceeded only by its incompetence therewith. (It always seemed odd to me that a Supreme Court stacked with Republicans (and thus presumably pro-business) should be so anti-US-style patenting). Much of the fire (and the ire) is directed at fields in which Gene thinks the US leads the world and which should be patented (computer software and biotech), but which are suffering under the Myriad and Alice decisions. To me, it smacks of an Americo-centric view of the universe, which sees everything the US as automatically the best in everything, and how dare funny foreigners think otherwise?

The thing I don’t get is that the Gene Quinns seem to be totally blind to the startling level of sheer incompetence and occasional downright dishonesty in the USPTO. This didn’t arise in the webinar at all. I personally regard it as the worst of the major patent offices. This in spite of a 50% (no kidding) increase in staff in less than a decade, most of whom were examiners. So, what’s going on (or not going on, as the case may be)?

As previously mentioned, after 20 years and 346,000Km, the McSteas have a new car, a Volvo V40. It was sad to leave the faithful old warrior behind, but the new one feels very nice. By the time I got it into the garage, I was a nervous wreck, with the thing beeping and flashing and whistling at me every time I went near something (including the plants down the side of the driveway). It also took me a while to get used to it doing things that I used to do myself, such as switching on its own headlamps and dipping its own main beam. Not to mention its howling and flashing at me when I reverse out of a parking spot and a car is approaching from the side. But it is nice to drive on the Autobahn, and when I’ve had it at the Teemacs office (on days when the Mrs had a hospital appointment), I go the long way home up the Autobahn (well, it’s a diesel and diesels need a nice long run, and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Given that my previous cars lasted respectively 6, 15 and 20 years, this one should outlast me.

It’s nice to see someone realising her dreams, but it seems so with our younger daughter, Megan “Biggles” McStea. Coming here as a very little girl, she was fascinated by the whole business of aviation. Other little girls have dolls in their rooms; Megan had aeroplanes. She passed her commercial pilot’s licence at the end of 2014, and is now training as a co-pilot on Fokker F100s of Helvetic Airlines, a small Swiss airline that provided a mixture of charter services and short-medium work for Swiss. Salaries for junior co-pilots aren’t brilliant, but, as she says, it’s more money than she’s ever earned before and they’re paying her to do something that she’s always wanted to do. What’s not to like?

Shopping tourism is a way of life in Swiss towns bordering France and Germany – variety is greater and prices lower over there. Normally, you can hardly move on a Saturday in the big Rheincenter, located in Weil am Rhein and strategically located about 400 metres from the customs post in Basel. Then the Swiss National Bank, deciding that it could no longer hold the line against the Euro at CHF1.20, stopped buying euros and the exchange rates went wild, the euro briefly trading at less than one Swiss franc. As a result, the traffic reports on the car radio on that first Saturday morning suggested that the border crossings be avoided as they were solid with Swiss desperate to buy the whole of Germany before the price went up. The original 1.20 barrier was erected because Swiss manufacturers were screaming at the problems that parity brought (it should be remembered that the euro was launched at around CHF1.66).

I find it a bit sad that the Swiss are being penalised for doing the right thing in having a strong currency and looking after it. The problem is the euro; a great idea, but very badly implemented. A single currency without a single overarching and universally-applied economic policy makes no sense. Everyone knows that the Greeks cooked the books to be admitted, but somehow this was all overlooked in the general optimism that a rising tide lifts all boats. Of course, the fact is that a rising tide lifts all yachts and the rest of us founder. What will happen now with Syriza in power in Greece remains to be seen. Bumpy road ahead, I suspect.

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