Charlie Weston: VHI's SwiftCare block is a game changer which will damage market competition
The move by the VHI to deny access to the SwiftCare clinics for people who do not buy health insurance from it is a game changer.
From September, only people who are VHI health insurance customers will be able to use the walk-in emergency clinics, putting people insured with Laya and Irish Life at a huge disadvantage.
SwiftCare provides walk-in medical care for minor illnesses and injuries for all comers at the moment.
The clinics are a godsend to people who do not have the time to queue for hours in busy accident and emergency wards in public hospitals.
They operate out of units in Dundrum, Swords and Cork and are open 365 days a year from 8am to 10pm. The clinics charge €125 for a consultation with a doctor and up to €95 per additional treatment.
But from September the option for people who are not members of the VHI to use a SwiftCare clinic will be closed off.
This follows the move earlier this year by VHI Group to take full control of VHI SwiftCare Clinics.
The deal was cleared by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), despite warnings from at least one of the VHI's competitors that the State insurer would shut off access to the clinics to non-VHI members.
And the CCPC gave the take-over the nod, even though it will hurt competitors of the VHI. Two other State regulatory agencies that oversee the activities of the VHI - the Central Bank and the Health Insurance Activity - have made no public comment on this move by a State-owned, but commercially-orientated, insurer.
There is already evidence that individuals and corporate clients are reacting to the SwiftCare move by giving their health insurance business to the VHI.
That is good for the VHI, but bad for competition in the Irish health insurance market.
Not that Laya and Irish Life can be presented as pro-consumer, as both have been busy this year repeatedly pushing up the cost of premiums.
VHI now intends to introduce a suite of new benefits, that will reduce the cost of its members using SwiftCare clinics, across all its health insurance plans.
Laya and Irish Life Health will now have to react by coming up with something similar. The problem is that will take time.
Up then it is likely that VHI will clean up in the market. People with legacy VHI plans, which mean they are over-paying for cover, will now be even less reluctant to move to the other two providers. Competition in the market has been harmed.
Sunday Indo Business