JUST a week into January and the VHI has piled on additional pressure on families by announcing savage price rises yesterday.
The hikes announced by the VHI will see the cost for two adults on Plan B Options jump by €888 a year to a hefty €2,860.
A family of two adults and two children with the cheaper Parents & Kids plan will face a €331 hike in annual premiums from February to €2,540.
But the good news is there are at least three ways to avoid these cruel cost rises.
The VHI hikes do not take effect until February 1. That means that anyone due to renew their healthcare cover with the company before February will not be affected by the rise.
That is because once you renew your cover you lock in at that premium for a full year. The new rates will take effect for anyone renewing their policy from February on. So if you are due to renew in March, you will pay the same monthly rate until then and from March on your premium will go up.
But even those who are due to renew their cover from February on can avoid the hike by changing their renewal date on their premium.
Just ring up the VHI and tell them you want to renew now, before February.
You are fully entitled to do this, according to VHI boss Jimmy Tolan.
All this can be done with one phone call to the VHI. However, the big problem you will face is getting through to the VHI as phone lines were jammed all day yesterday after the company dropped its bombshell.
GET A CORPORATE PLAN
Another way to save is to opt for a corporate plan.
The average family can save up to €400 on their private healthcare by doing this, and again it only takes one phone call.
Families can cut the cost of their health cover and increase the level of benefits by opting for a 'corporate plan'.
These plans are available to everyone, but healthcare providers do not advertise the fact that they are better value for individuals.
These plans are only marketed to companies when health insurers are trying to sign up all the firm's staff, but by law they must be available to everyone.
Liam Sloyan, the head of the Health Insurance Authority (HIA), has confirmed that everyone is entitled to switch to a corporate plan. "These plans tend to have similar benefits to individual plans, but at a significantly lower cost," he said.
Health insurance experts explained yesterday that many people mistakenly believed they had a corporate plan as they paid for their insurance through their job, but in fact all they were getting was a 10pc "group discount".
This discount tends to be offered to most people, Dermot Goode of HealthInsuranceSavings.ie said.
"Each of the three insurers also have a range of corporate plans which tend to offer better overall benefits at a lower price. While these plans are not widely advertised, they can be accessed by anyone either joining health insurance or wishing to transfer from their existing plan," Mr Goode said.
These plans can save consumers from 10pc to 30pc and could save a typical family up to €400.
You can continue to have your health insurance premiums deducted from your salary or from your credit union account. The VHI will just tell your employer or credit union to deduct a different monthly amount as you have shifted to a different plan.
Another option is to switch to another provider. For those with the VHI, Quinn Healthcare and Aviva are cheaper and have similar plans. Quinn announced a price hike of 8pc on January 1 last, with some plans going up by 25pc.
Aviva increased the cost of its popular Level 2 Everyday plan by 10pc just before Christmas and is now likely to push through rises in the costs of other plans.
But even with the Quinn hikes and any rises pushed through by Aviva, these two health insurers will still be cheaper than the VHI, according to insurance brokers.
From February Plan B Options from VHI will cost €1,430 per adult.
The equivalent from Aviva, called Level 2 Hospital, is €825. And Quinn's Essential Plus is €995 per adult, according to Mr Goode.
There is no waiting period for those who opt to switch and a new insurer has to take you on without imposing any extra cost for an illness you may already have.
Your new insurer will arrange the switch for you and send you the paperwork to sign.
Don't miss Charlie Weston's special 20-page supplement on how families can cope with the downturn, free in next Thursday's Irish Independent.