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Saturday 23 August 2014

Charlie Weston: A chill wind blowing as the year begins

Charlie Weston

Published 07/01/2011 | 05:00

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THEY say April is the cruellest month, but for consumers January is proving to be a stinker. We all knew it was going to be a rough year, but few expected it to be quite as bad as this.

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Already there have been a stream of job losses. This came hot on the heels of the effective nationalisation of AIB just before Christmas.

Families with children got less child benefit this month. A family with three children was down €40 on child benefit when this was paid on Tuesday. And all this comes before people even get their pay packets.

Those opening them are in for a shock. Higher income tax and the new universal social charge will wilt many a wallet and puncture many purses.

Just to add to the misery, the VHI chips in with some record rises in premiums.

Rises of between 15pc and 45pc are set to be imposed from February 1.

Anyone renewing their policy with the VHI from then will find it massively expensive to do so.

Many families will be forced to give up private healthcare cover altogether, such is the combination of cruel financial hits being imposed on them.

At a time when most prices are heading downwards, or not moving at all, the cost of private healthcare is rocketing.

Almost every year now the VHI imposes often large rises in premiums, quickly followed by rivals Aviva and Quinn.

The question is -- can such extreme rises be justified?

Can it really be reasonable to expect an adult to stump up an additional €444 a year to pay for Plan B Options?

The VHI argues that it has been hit by a number of costs that are outside its control.

It cites the decision in last month's Budget to hike the cost of a bed in a public hospital by 21pc.

This is a cost that it is not in a position to do anything about as the Government will not allow it to negotiate hospital bed prices for public hospitals.

The state-owned healthcare insurer also argues that demand for medical procedures is rising by 8pc a year and is set to keep rising. Strong demand for cancer and cardiac treatments are a major and rising cost for the VHI.

And then there is the fact that the VHI has the lion's share of the older consumers who have private healthcare.

It has a staggering 280,000 people over the age of 60 on its books.

It costs 15 times more to provide for the healthcare needs of an 80-year-old than it does for a 20-year-old, VHI boss Jimmy Tolan stressed yesterday.

This is why there is a levy of €205 imposed by the Government on everyone who takes out a health-insurance policy.

This levy is essentially a transfer from all policyholders to the VHI to compensate it for the fact that it has so many costly older people on its books.

Tolan was adamant yesterday that the loss-making company he heads has done all it can to cut the costs it is confronted with and its own costbase.

When it came to its own costs Tolan was coy. He refused to confirm or deny whether he or VHI staff have taken a pay cut. All he would say is that pay costs are down at the VHI, which could be because staff are not being replaced when they leave or retire.

However, of far greater significance is the high cost of the Irish healthcare system. Here the accusation for the VHI is that it is not doing enough to cut the costs that it can control.

It argues that it has got consultants' fees down by 15pc, but many will argue that a cut of that magnitude is not enough when you are asking customers to pay an additional 45pc in premiums.

Last year some 48,000 left the VHI. This trend will be accelerated this year.

Competitors Quinn and Aviva will raid the customer book of VHI and seriously deplete the number of younger customers it has.

Up to now Irish people have shown a remarkable reluctance to give up on their private health insurance.

That will now surely change.

The combination of people giving up health insurance and thousands switching away from the VHI will have two consequences: it will put additional pressure on an already creaking public- health system, and further undermine the competitiveness of the VHI.

And this comes at a time when the Government is just months away from appointing an investment bank to advise it on the sale of the VHI.

Tolan denied yesterday that the massive price hikes were about fattening up the VHI for privatisation.

However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is no future for the VHI as it is presently constituted.

Pushing up insurance premiums to such an extent will drive thousands of its customers from its doors, especially younger ones.

This will compound its problem.

This will leave little alternative but the Government to proceed with its plan to sell it.

Who will want to buy such a loss-making company with so many older customers is the big question?

Health Minister Mary Harney should not be expecting to make any money out of that deal.

Irish Independent

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