Insurers accused of 'ageism' with extra charges for hip and knee replacements
Insurers have been accused of ageism by charging extra for knee and hip replacements, even though they are legally barred from discriminating on the basis of age.
The introduction of a €2,000 surcharge for these and other orthopaedic procedures by one insurer is a worrying trend, a leading economist warned.
Private health insurer Irish Life has introduced four new plans under its '4D Health' scheme. They range in price from just over €1,000 a year per adult to €1,668.
But each plan carries a €2,000 'co-payment' on 10 orthopaedic procedures, including hip and knee replacements.
Stephen Thomas, director of the Centre for Health Policy and Management at Trinity College, said charging a surcharge or 'co-payment' on top of health insurance premiums is effectively forcing older people to pay more for private health coverage.
This is because they are more likely to require certain operations - such as knee or hip replacements - as they age.
"The question is, how far will they go?" he said.
An Irish Life spokeswoman did not respond to questions over the rationale behind the surcharges. She would only confirm that Irish Life is charging the co-payment.
"Like all plans in this price range, the series of Irish Life 4D Health plans carry a €2,000 co-payment for specified orthopaedic procedures," the spokeswoman said.
However, Prof Thomas said charging the extra payment for certain procedures raised the prospect of older people effectively having to pay more for their health insurance, simply because they will probably require certain medical treatments as they age.
This is despite the concept of community rating that underpins the private health insurance market in Ireland. Under the scheme, "everybody is charged the same premium for a particular health insurance plan, irrespective of age, gender and the current or likely future state of their health", according to the Health Department website.
But like restaurant patrons being charged a "supplement" on certain items listed as part of an early bird menu, older people could end up paying much more.
"Many of our members see private health insurance as a necessity," said Justin Moran (inset), head of advocacy and communications for Age Action.
"They're already struggling to make ends meet and keep up their insurance payments. These new plans really appear like they're deliberately targeting older people which is going to cause serious hardship to people on limited savings and small, fixed incomes," he said.
"We really need to see regulations that permit ageism in the health insurance market to be stamped out."
The move to charge the co-payment comes just weeks after regulators warned insurers about manipulating their polices to make them less attractive to older people.
The Health Insurance Authority (HIA) has called for a review of the regulations to counter the fact older people end up paying more for cover. The average person over the age of 60 is paying a premium that is 30pc more expensive than their younger counterparts, the authority's annual report shows.
HIA chief executive Don Gallagher has called on Health Minister Simon Harris to carry out a review of the regulations stipulating the minimum benefits that have to be carried on each plan.