Taxpayers foot private hospital bill

TAXPAYERS are footing the insurance bills of a group of hospital consultants working in private hospitals.

The Department of Health yesterday confirmed that obstetricians working in private maternity hospitals have their insurance paid for by the State because the consultants cannot afford the expensive premiums. Spiralling claims mean private obstetricians cannot afford premiums in excess of 400,000 so the Government has stepped in the pay their indemnity cover. The obstetricians deliver about 4,000 babies each year and the public hospital system would not be able to absorb these numbers if the private consultants were forced out of business.

“The Government decided that it was necessary to offer a limited indemnity to the owners of these hospital in order to allow them to continue to provide these essential services,” a Department of Health spokesman said.

The new insurance measures have been in place since July this year, when a new Clinical Indemnity Scheme was established. The Government established the scheme in response to the huge sums being awarded in cases of cerebral damage to infants.

Under the scheme, insurance firms will pay liability costs up to a certain limit. The State, however, will take on responsibility if the cost of a claim is deemed too exorbitant for the insurance company.

Spiralling insurance costs had been threatening the viability of two private hospitals which provide obstetric services, the Bon Secours in Cork and Mount Carmel Hospital in Dublin. This new insurance system covers the on-site private practice of doctors employed in the public health service.

But it does not cover their off-site private practice or will it cover consultants in full-time private practice. The only exception to this general principle is obstetrics.

But the arrangement has been criticised by Fine Gael councillor Colm Burke.

“I want to know why the details of this contract were never published and why the Department has been reluctant to release details of the contract,” the Cork-based councillor said. Meanwhile, the insurance system - which has yet to be extended to all hospital consultants - may also lead to another hike in VHI fees.

It was reported yesterday that VHI chief Vincent Sheridan has warned Health Minister Micheál Martin that the company may have to look for another 3% rise in premiums.

This is because consultants treating patients in private hospitals will have to seek insurance cover at commercial rates.

The VHI estimates that this could cost consultants 20m a year, which has not been accounted for in the insurance company’s cost base.

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