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ICS Cards – Export Statements

As part of my banking with ABN Amro I get a credit card managed by ICS Cards.

The single most annoying thing about ICS Cards is that they don’t provide any means of exporting my statements. The next most annoying thing is that they haven’t responded to any of my emails request that feature.

Time to help myself then, in true developer fashion, I’ll write my own.

I’ve used loads of languages over the years and different languages suit different tasks. Python turns out to be my go-to language for scraping web-pages and pulling out information from them. Mostly because it’s really easy to knock up a script and because there are loads of great libraries already available to do most of the grunt work.

So here it is. A quick and dirty script to log into my account, parse the monthly statement page, fix the formatting and write it out as CSV.

This is by no means a finished script (have you seen how messy it is!!) and it’s kinda hard-coded what it will download.

Here’s an example output once the script is done with it:

Encounters with Dutch Medicine

I’ve been in the Netherlands for a few months now and for various reasons I’ve had the need to interact with the medical entities here quite a bit.

Like everything new, it can be a bit confusing to start with and getting your head around what’s happening and what is expected can be a bit daunting.

It starts with getting health insurance. Health insurance in the Netherlands is compulsory, everyone in the country has to be insured. Insurers are not allowed to refuse you cover, nor are they allowed to require special conditions; questions someone from the UK might never have considered, but Americans are probably very used to. Most hospitals and medical establishments appear to be private, not-for-profit organisations. Wikipedia (as usual) as has more details for those interested.

A “basic” package includes essentially everything needed to keep one alive and functioning, this is covered in part by employer contributions from payroll and in part by your own contributions to insurance. Some things, like GP (Huisarts, lit. house doctor) visits are fully covered and you’ll never pay towards them. I’m sure there are others but I’ve not yet encountered them.

Prescriptions are covered by a form of co-pay scheme where you pay up to an annual amount that’s mandated by the government, this year it’s €218. That means you’ll pay the first €218 of your covered costs in a year and after that your insurance pays everything else. My insurer gives me a nice little summary bar chart of what’s left for me to pay.

You can decrease your monthly insurance costs by increasing your “eigen risico” (lit. own risk) but I was recommended not to by my employer.

In addition to the basic package the insurers will tend to then offer cover for additional services, mine for example (and I tried my best to get it removed) is cover for “alternative” medicine, like homoeopathy, but it’s in the standard package offered because people seem to like paying over the odds for water. More sensible things are mental health, dietary advice, elective surgeries, even health spas and similar things. Generally the difference between the different levels of cover is how much you have to pay before/after the insurance kicks in.

Dental is usually not covered, except it seems for children under eighteen. I know I need to visit the dentist twice a year, so I had dental insurance added. I’ve always paid a fair bit on the NHS when I went to the dentist, and the hygienist was never covered by the NHS, whereas it is covered by my insurance here. I’ve had an hygienist visit, a check-up and two fillings repaired and I’d say I’ve probably ended up paying a third or half more than I would have on the NHS (including my insurance cost). Looking at private dental costs charts in the UK I’d say prices are comparable, if possibly slightly cheaper in the Netherlands, although I’ve not done an in-depth analysis.

Once you have insurance things are actually fairly simple. I haven’t handed cash or debit-card over to anyone at all since I was here. Even in the UK you are expected to pay for prescription charges up front (unless exempted); not so in the Netherlands. Once they have my insurance details everything goes via the insurer, so I pay nothing at the counter, not at the doctor, pharmacy (for prescriptions) nor at the dentist; which makes a nice change from the UK where I had to hand over cash/card all the time, even for NHS stuff.

Finding a doctor was fairly simple as well. There’s a nice website where you just type in your postcode and all the doctors, dentists, etc. in your area listed with contact details and ratings (there don’t seem to be too many of those yet, so probably not that reliable).

I found my doctor by looking them up there, then going to their website and signing up as a new patient. As it happened my health took a turn for the worse shortly after and I then phoned them up. The answer machine had an option for English, which is nice, and I was able to make an urgent appointment for the next morning (none of this” phone before 0900h for a same day appointment” I had at my UK doctor). My first appointment actually lasted 45 minutes, much longer than usual, but I never felt rushed, which is also a nice change from my UK GP experiences. I consider both my UK and Dutch surgeries comparable as they are both GP collectives (can’t think of a better term right now) where you have multiple GPs working out of a single surgery and sharing the load. Unlike my UK surgery though, the Dutch one assigned me a doctor and will do everything they can to make sure I always get “my” doctor. In the UK this was merely a formality and they gave me whatever doctor they felt like for the appointment, unless I specifically asked for one by name.

The doctors all speak excellent English so I had no problems talking to them, the doctors’ assistants (I might be doing them a disservice, but they seem more like receptionists to me) are a different matter, none of them seem to speak English, so that can be a bit interesting at times as I try out my slowly improving Dutch on them.

Things were sorted out for me pretty quickly. Blood tests done the next day, results and medication to deal with what was found. Interestingly doctors here won’t sign you off work, not even recommend if you should go in or not; that’s up to you and your company’s doctor (who I have yet to speak to, not sure my company even has one).

Medication I got from the in-house pharmacy and again I had to hand over no money, it all goes direct to my insurer. If the medication isn’t covered, then it’s added to my “own risk” and/or I get a bill. The only time I was required to pay for medication was for something that’s commonly abused and the insurance just flatly refuses to pay for; an understandable attitude.

Unlike the UK, every prescription you get from your doctor is, seemingly, a repeat prescription. That is, once you’ve been given medication once by your doctor, you can keep going back to the pharmacist for more; at least that’s how my doctor explained it to me; I’ve yet try it out. This might explain why the insurer refused to pay even for a prescription medication.

Talking of medication, one thing that’s different is the level of restrictions on medication. Things I used to buy in the supermarket in the UK are prescription only over here. Cocodamol (paracetamol and codeine) for example. Even things like the cetrizine antihistamine is only available in packs of seven from the pharmacy, whereas I could buy it in packs of thirty from the pharmacy in the UK. Getting the prescriptions is not difficult, just need to ask the doctor. Dosages are also slightly different, my painkiller here in Netherlands is stronger now; 500mg/10mg (paracetamol/codeine) instead of 500mg/8mg that I used to get in the UK. One thing this means is that, once my “own risk” is used up, I won’t be paying for these medications any more for the remainder of the year; whereas the NHS would never have paid for these.

Keeping track of my insurance is easy as well. My insurer provides a nice website, which I log into using the government required “DigiD“, which is also used for things like my taxes (a federated security model, for those that are interested). Once in I can see everything that has gone through the insurer (see left, vergoed = reimbursed), how much is covered, what isn’t, what’s left of my “own risk” (see above) and an itemised breakdown, (see below).

Dentist, GP and pharmacy.

All in all, my experience with Dutch healthcare as been pretty favourable. As I’m required to pay for it now I’m actually pretty pleased with the way things are organised and presented to me, in many ways it’s actually more convenient than what I was used to under the NHS. In some ways I’m actually much happier here than I was in the UK, but I’m not sure if that’s a systemic difference, or because of the doctors’ offices I happened to have chosen in each country.

Moving to the Netherlands – First Steps

This post also know as: Dancing with Bureaucracy.

Given how long this has been in the planning (over half a year) it’s rather strange to be thinking of what’s happened today as first steps. In truth though, it’s the first really concrete stuff that’s happened since I signed the employment contract.

I’ve now moved out from the sphere of potentia, where I could look longingly (albeit with some dread) at the path still to travel, but was unable to actually put a foot on that path and start moving forward. A journey filled with inane, and seemingly insane, bureaucracy, helpful people and some cultural differences.

The first thing to explain is that without a BSN (burgerservicenummer, lit. citizen service number), nothing happens. The BSN is what the Americans would call a social security number. It’s like a national insurance number but more so. You cannot get anything done without one.

To get a BSN, you need to register with the local council. To register with the local council you need an address. To get an address you need to buy/rent a flat. To buy/rent a flat you need to pay for it and hence you need a Dutch bank account. To get a bank account you need… wait for it… a BSN. Oops.

As usual most bureaucracies can be circumvented if you know how to play the game.

My story starts at 9am in gloomy, damp dawn light outside what will be my new flat. Enter the man from the makelaar (lit. Broker, in my case more accurately an estate/letting agent). When I signed the contract for my flat this morning he had (without any prompting from me) kindly brought a third copy of the contract along which both he and I signed in addition to the others. This contract has no legal force whatsoever, since he’s not entitled to sign it, but it means I have a counter signed contract ready to show the authorities to get my BSN; while waiting for the proper contract to make the round trip to the owner company and back. In the event, I didn’t need it; at least not yet. It was a nice extra thing of him to do and much appreciated. He’s also arranging for a contractor to give me an estimate for flooring/painting my flat. His fee well earned, I have to say, despite some irritation at them not getting the key in time. The fee wasn’t much different from that in the UK, yet the guy was friendlier and more helpful than any of the agents I’ve had to deal with in the UK in the past.

Signed contract in hand, I head into town to get my BSN. I really need it now. I have to pay my rent. They don’t take cards, Barclays Bank rather unhelpfully won’t transfer money internationally to a third-party account and so I need a Dutch account… fast. There’s maybe 4 working days to get this done.

I head into the International Centre in the Stadhuis (Town Hall) where they promptly offer me coffee and tea and then tell me that it turns out I cannot get an appointment to register until sometime late in January. Everyone that said I could just walk in and do it was wrong. Problem. Oh and that birth certificate, my original, almost as old as me, isn’t worth a damn. They won’t accept a document older than 6 months.

After describing my dilemma he nods in understanding; he’s heard it all before. Out of earshot of his colleauge he tells me “I’m a civil servant, so I’m not allowed to give commercial advice. So I cannot tell you that the Amro bank just down the road has an international desk and as long a you go in there, keep saying you’re an expat and refuse to speak any Dutch they’ll open an account without a BSN.”

I get an appointment to register (different office) for a couple of weeks’ time, turns out they had just two spare slots right after new year, which worked out great for me.  I get a copy of the appointment details in case the bank wants some proof.

Turns out it was just as simple as my helpful civil servant said. I walk into the bank, which looks more like the front offices of what I picture a rich law firm to be than any UK bank I’ve ever been in; quite similar to my experiences in Germany and Switzerland though. As usual everyone speaks English and I’m once again offered a drink. The address on my new flat contract is enough to open an account. All the documents are provided in both English and Dutch, although it’s carefully pointed out that only the Dutch ones have legal force, and I’m shown a quick introduction to the internet banking site, also totally in English. Knowing I’ll need to move money internationally I make sure I get the IBAN and BIC codes for my account. The bank charges me €2.70 per month for the service and I don’t get interest on the current account (as if the 0.05% I get in the UK qualifies as interest).

I discover that there’s actually online IBAN/BIC calculators to work these things out for free. I know from the Barclays website they charge an extra £7 fee if you don’t have them. Suddenly sounds a lot like extortion.

I swing by the British Embassy on the way to the office to sort out my birth certificate where I’m told they don’t do helpful stuff and I need to talk to the Consulate-General in Amsterdam.

At the office the first thing I do is phone up Barclays to move some money. Once I’m past the Indian call-centre operator with her mediocre grasp of English (worse than most of the Dutch people I spoke to today, who don’t even work in a call centre for an English company), I get a pleasantly helpful northern chap who fairly quickly sorts out the transfer. £15 charge. Starkly in contrast to what the man at the Amro told me earlier that they move money anywhere in Europe for free. I’m starting to think the holy grail of “free” banking in the UK is looking more like the Monty Python version, and not worth the pursuit. This one transfer, that would have been free if going from NL to UK, cost me as much as half a years banking in the Netherlands. I’m hardly a “usual” customer, admittedly, but still.

Next call is to the Consulate General in Amsterdam. They say, yes, I do need a new birth ceritficate issued and I need it legalised, it needs an apostille stamp. After much haggling about the best way to get this quickly, which at one point had me travelling in person to the Consulate-General in Stuttgart where my birth was registered, the best bet was to call General Registrar Office in the UK.

After a futile conversation with an automated phone system I finally get to talk to a real human and he’s immediately helpful. Clearly deals with this type of stuff a lot. Also turns out that I’m quite lucky at needing only 6 months. He says in France it’s 3 months and they want a birth certificate for everything!

£67 later my birth certificate has been requested. £20 for the apostille stamp and the rest on a rush service and special delivery so that I get the thing in time for my registration appointment. Luckily my employer will cover this cost. The cheapest you can do this is around £32; I pity the UK expats living in France.

It’s now basically lunch time. I have a flat. I have a bank account. I have an appointment to be registered. I should hopefully have a birth certificate in time for that, and when the money has finished flowing through the ether I can pay my rent.

It’s taken a couple of months/weeks of preparation, mostly the first step of finding a place to live and getting that sorted, but in half a day I’m a big chunk of the way closer to actually living and working the the Netherlands.