HIA: Consumers must look twice at premiums

CONSUMERS must ‘start looking twice’ at their health insurance premiums from now on to get the best value for money.

That’s the advice from the Health Insurance Authority following the decision by Aviva to increase health insurance premium rates by 14% from March.

Aviva’s price hike comes just weeks after the VHI premium increases were announced, a move that caused a 10-fold increase in calls to the HIA and a 20-fold increase in hits on its website, according to a HIA spokesperson.

The Irish Patients Association said it was unconvinced that Aviva’s price hike was solely to cover additional demand for private health services and medical inflation and not some marketing strategy.

The HIA does not have a price regulating function but it does encourage consumers to shop around for the best value money.

Its website www.hia.ie compares prices and benefits of insurance plans so that consumers can make an informed choice by keying in their current plan and getting comparable rates for similar products.

Quinn Healthcare announced last November that their prices were to increase by an average of 8% from January 1.

The HIA spokesperson did not expect that the public response to Aviva’s price increase would be quite as dramatic but pointed out got a lot of calls about a reduction in cover offered by the VHI on some of its most popular plans.

“The authority is aware of the issue and has been in contact with the VHI and a review is underway,” he said.

The plans to be downgraded are the Parents and Kids plans to which the company switched many families in 2009.When introduced, they offered identical cover to the Plan B policies they replaced but from next month, the cover for some treatments will be significantly downgraded.

A VHI spokesperson said the reduction in cover had been made on a number of “restricted procedures” including hip, knee, and shoulder joint replacement, prostheses and major eye surgery, including cataract surgery.

From a customer’s renewal date, benefits for these procedures on the relevant plans will be covered at 80% in private hospitals and fully covered in public hospitals.

“We don’t expect, and our claims experience has been, that there will be many of these cases on these plans. Most of the people that require this type of procedure will be on plans with higher benefits,” said the spokesperson.

The Aviva price increase means that its popular Level 2 programme for a family of two adults and two children will increase from €2,030 to €2,315.60, an increase of €285.

The insurance company blamed the increased health levy, the Budget and medical inflation, particularly the increase in beds in public hospitals, for the price increase.

Aviva chief executive Jim Dowdall, who said three weeks ago that the company had no intention of increasing premiums, said they delayed introducing the price increase until the last possible moment.

He said 30,000 people had switched to Aviva in the last month and their premiums would remain unchanged until next year.

“The price increase we have to apply is the absolute minimum of all insurers in the market, ” he stressed on RTÉ radio yesterday.

Asked if he thought health insurers were being ‘ripped off’ for the price of private beds in public hospitals, Mr Dowdall said there were many cases where treatment was more expensive in public hospitals than it was in private hospitals.

Chief executive of the Irish Brokers Association, Ciarán Whelan said brokers had experienced an influx of people wanting advice on the best value health insurance plans.

“The increases in the cost of private health cover dwarf those in other countries and may ultimately lead to a situation where younger people, particularly those with large mortgages opt out of the system due to absolute affordability,” he warned.

“We appear to have an Irish/American health system — Irish standards with American prices,” said Mr Whelan.

Private health care expert, Aongus Loughlin, said he was particularly concerned about the way the VHI had announced changes in benefits, without giving sufficient notice to members to make an informed decision, something that had not been done before.

Mr Loughlin, who is head of health care and risk consulting at Towers Watson, said the cuts in benefit would affect the most vulnerable who would need the restricted procedures, such as hip replacement and cataract surgery when they got older.

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