How to avoid swallowing bitter pill
Health cover need not cost an arm and a leg, but you have to shop around first, says Jerome Reilly
More than 500,000 people are due to renew their health cover in the next few weeks -- but there is now deep confusion as consumers plough through nearly 300 different plans and a range of special perks and offers being offered by the "big four" insurers.
And for the first time family heads are realising they may be better off joining two schemes at the same time -- placing children and dependent adult children on one plan and choosing another for themselves.
And though premiums continue to rise, there is also a price war as insurers battle to retain market share as many people abandon private health insurance.
The big players in the market -- VHI, Laya, Aviva and GloHealth -- are showing sharp increases for 2014 on many plans but there are still ways to save money if you examine all the different options, as our illustration shows.
Just over two million people have health insurance in Ireland -- and one in four will renew their cover in the next few weeks.
But the number of people who have health cover continues to decline because of emigration, the recession, unemployment and the rise in the cost of health cover.
According to Dermot Goode, of healthinsurancesavings.ie, who helped compile our list of the best plans for young singles and families, older couples with dependent children and seniors, there is a fear that many more people will leave the market for good.
"Well to put it bluntly there is confusion," he said.
"We have seen a 50 per cent increase in queries in the first 10 days of January.
"People who, in the past, routinely just renewed their plan can't do that anymore. They can't afford the increase in premiums.
"It means that it is not just the usual savvy people who are looking at all the options as a matter of course. Consumers are shopping around because they have to shop around," he added.
"All families are now looking at all four insurers to see their family orientated plans. Some parents are splitting their cover, putting the kids on a lower plan and keeping themselves on the better plan.
"Others are taking the dual insurer route -- splitting the cover between different insurers to get the very best cover at a price.
"If, for example, someone has a child under three they might choose GloHealth to get the free cover offer for under-3s and go elsewhere for the adults in the family."
Mr Goode also revealed that many are now considering corporate plans and others are, reluctantly, changing over to so-called network plans.
What they are doing is looking at plans which do not cover all public and private hospitals.
About 10 per cent are looking at this option. They are taking on a higher level of risk because it is the only way they can make their cover affordable.
"Sadly there is also a tendency for parents to remove adult dependent children aged over 21 or 22 in full-time education or low-paid internships from their policy," he added.
Ireland's health insurance market peaked at the end of 2008, just as the recession hit.
Since then, 250,000 have left private healthcare. The percentage of the population with in-patient health insurance plans now stands at 44.6 per cent, down from just under 51 per cent five years ago.
A key factor is obviously emigration but there is no doubt that spiralling costs mean that, for many, especially the young, health insurance is now seen as a luxury that can be done without.
Just over 11,000 cancelled their cover in the quarter ending last September.
"That trend is still there," Mr Goode added. "We are seeing a lot more people cancelling their cover.
"And these are people who are not emigrating."
Split your cover or provider -- for example, put kids on a lower plan compared with the adults.
Add an excess to your policy -- by taking on an excess in private hospitals only, you could reduce your costs by thousands of euro per adult depending on the insurer or plan held.
In most cases, these excesses apply per admission, i.e. on the total bill. While this will suit most members, those who have to attend private hospitals on a regular basis would be strongly advised to do a cost/benefit analysis before opting for one of these plans.
Claim your student rates --these aren't given automatically. You have to claim them.
Drop your day-to-day cover. If you have VHI Health Steps Gold or Silver or Aviva Day-to-Day A or Day-to-Day 50, you need to consider dropping these plans as soon as possible as, in most cases, they no longer represent good value for money.
Seek the corporate plan equivalent. They usually offer the best value-for-money cover but may not suit all due to private hospital excesses and other limitations. Always look for the corporate plan equivalent to either rule it in or rule it out.
Be sensible with your accommodation cover -- unless a private room is critical for you, drop down one level to save one adult about €500 per annum.
Watch for 'special offers' --- from time to time, the insurers put 'offers' into the market especially for children under 18.
Due to the volume of renewals in January and February there should be some good offerings available, especially for young families.