independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Health critics refuse to reveal if they have private cover

THE strongest critics of our health service arenot prepared to reveal if they have privateinsurance or rely on the public system.

Several left-wing TDs are among a raft of politicians, hospital bosses, HSE managers and senior civil servants in the Department of Health who declined to answer the simple query.

But Health Minister James Reilly, who is in charge of the public health system, admitted he has had private health insurance all his life.

The silence of many of his political colleagues suggests they fear a backlash from voters if they admit they would not use the public system.

The issue has been thrust into the spotlight by the chief of the country’s patients’ watchdog HIQA, who said she didn’t have private insurance.

Dr Tracey Cooper last week said to do so would show a lack of faith in the public system.

"If I do not have confidence in the local public health system, how can I expect 4.6 million people to do so?" she said.

But the majority of politicians and health officials contacted by the Irish Independent were far less forthcoming.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore were among those who refused to say whether they enjoyed private health cover.

And even socialist TDs, who have made a virtue of their condemnation of the two-tier system, would not say when asked about their own situation.

Socialist Party TDs Joe Higgins and Clare Daly -- never slow to berate the perceived inequalities of the health insurance system -- appeared to take exception to being asked if they were insured. Their spokesman told the Irish Independent to mind its own business.

Private health insurance is increasingly becoming an expensive option for families who have faced price hikes of up to 48pc on cover already this year. Up to 100,000 are expected to ditch their cover for financial reasons this year.

Dr Reilly has been heavily criticised for raising a levy that increased costs for insurers. Some of these costs are already being passed on to customers.

But Dr Reilly was forthright when asked if he had private cover himself, saying that he had been a member of the VHI since he was born.

"My parents took out cover for me and it would not make sense for me to give it up now," he told the Irish Independent.

He added: "To stop it now would send out a strange signal, particularly when we are moving to universal health insurance."

He pointed out that the Government eventually intended to introduce universal health insurance for all so everyone would be covered.

Somebody on the minister's income will pay their entire premium themselves whereas the less well off will be subsidised.

However, it is understood it will be 2016 before any start is made in bringing in this new scheme -- and another five years before it is rolled out.

Upfront

Although the Health Minister was upfront, the Taoiseach refused to give any information, saying it was a private matter.

Mr Gilmore was similarly tight-lipped. His deputy leader, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton promptly confirmed she has insurance.

Her attitude was in sharp contrast to other Labour colleagues. Junior Health Minister Kathleen Lynch replied: "None of your business." The other junior minister in the Department of Health, Roisin Shortall, gave no response. But Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald confirmed she had insurance and supported universal health insurance for all.

Currently, the insured do not have to wait for care, while people relying on the public system must take their chances and be prepared for long delays.

The Government recently decided to increase the levy paid by health insurers from €205 to €285 for adult customers and from €69 to €95 for under-18s.

This decision has been blamed for contributing to premium increases and forcing more people to give up their policies.

The Irish Independent also surveyed a range of officials in hospitals and agencies which influence the health service.

Cathal Magee, chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE), did not reply.

Two key figures in the Department of Health, the departing secretary general Michael Scanlon and chief medical officer Tony Holohan also refused to say.

A department spokesman said: "It's a private matter."

Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, whose office investigates grievances of people let down by the public health system, believed it was personal information, her spokesman said.

Chief executives at five of the country's largest hospitals were similarly coy, when asked about their own health cover.

There were some surprises when the question was posed to Opposition spokespeople on health.

Fianna Fail's spokesman Billy Kelleher said he and his family had private cover.

Sinn Fein spokesman Caoimhghin O Caolain said he relied entirely on the public system.

And Independent TD Luke 'Ming' Flanagan was one of the few who said he was happy not to pay for private insurance.

It is estimated that 6,000 people a month are now cancelling their policies.

It will mean yet more strain on the public service, which is also facing cuts of €750m this year.

Irish Independent

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