Call to investigate VHI for age discrimination

THE Equality Authority should be asked to investigate the VHI for possible age discrimination against its elderly customers as a result of the decision by the state insurance company to raise its premiums by up to 45%, according to a Labour Party senator.

Phil Prendergast, Labour’s spokesperson on the Older Person, yesterday called on the Equality Authority to consider a legal challenge to the controversial price increases announced by the VHI on Thursday.

Mr Prendergast said the biggest increases would hit VHI schemes which were predominantly favoured by older people. “Insurance policies cannot by law include additional premium weighting on age grounds but, by singling out policies mainly bought by older people, the VHI is in danger of engaging in indirect and possibly direct discrimination.”

She pointed out that VHI chief executive Jimmy Tolan had made it clear that the cost of serving the company’s elderly customer base was the principal cause of the VHI’s financial problems.

Ms Prendergast said there was a growing suspicion that the prices increases were designed to drive older people away from the VHI to make it more attractive to potential buyers following the Government’s decision to sell the company in the near future.

Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins also hit out at the latest VHI price rises, as well as condemning promises by Fine Gael and Labour to introduce a form of universal healthcare.

Mr Higgins said the VHI price increases of up to 45% highlighted the disastrous nature of the for-profit healthcare system promoted by Health Minister Mary Harney. He accused the VHI of victimising its elderly customers with exorbitant fees as the insurance company had acknowledged that it expected to see 5,000 of its older customers move to plans providing less cover than their existing ones.

Mr Higgins also accused Fine Gael and Labour of trying to provide universal healthcare, which he supports in principle, by forcing everybody to take out private health insurance with the help of state funding.

Meanwhile, Dr Steve Thomas, a lecturer in health policy at Trinity College Dublin, said there was an essential weakness in the private health insurance market in Ireland through the absence of risk equalisation — a system whereby insurers with young customer bases compensate rivals whose customer have a higher age (and therefore) costlier profile — which was discontinued following a Supreme Court ruling in 2008.

Dr Thomas said a health insurance system where people relied on private cover would “always be inequitable and unfair”.

He supported the introduction of a universal healthcare system to be provided by one insurer which would ensure that “people can’t buy their way round current waiting lists”.


Q. What can I do to avoid the VHI hikes announced earlier this week?

A. The price increases begin from February 1 so you could renew your policy over the next month and that will lock you in at current prices for the next 12 months. You can do this even if your policy isn’t up for renewal until next October. You can do this if you are paying by direct debit also.

Q. What’s this that I’m hearing about corporate plans? I work for a big company. How do I get one of those?

A. No price increases have been announced in corporate plans and corporate plans are available to all potential customers, irrespective of whether you are a company employee or not. All you need to do is contact VHI and look for a corporate plan similar to your current plan.

Q. What’s the difference between a corporate rate and a group rate?

A. A group rate reduction is generally in the order of 10%. A corporate rate reduction can be multiples of that. Go after the corporate.

Q. I’m up to my ears with VHI price increases. How easy is switching to a new provider if I have a pre-existing condition?

A. All commentators, including the Minister for Health, are urging people to check out the competition in the health insurance market. First stop should be the Health Insurance Authority (HIA) website which makes comparisons between the various products. All you have to do is sign up with the chosen company and then notify VHI that you wish to discontinue your existing policy. In Ireland, there’s an “open enrolment” policy so you as long as you are not taking on a superior plan, with superior benefits, you can switch seamlessly as long as you were insured for 13 weeks before making the switch. Age cannot be used as a reason for not taking on a person who has up-to-date insurance. You are then immediately insured.

Q. So there is no waiting period?

A. There is no waiting period if you are going for the same level or a lower level of cover. If you are looking for increased cover, you may face a waiting period before which you cannot use those specific benefits.

The maximum waiting period if you are under 65 is two years and over 65, five years. The determination of the waiting period also depends on any pre-existing medical conditions that relate to the increased benefits.

- Claire O’Sullivan

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