THE private health insurance watchdog yesterday moved to reassure consumers that they are fully entitled to switch provider without penalty, even if they have a pre-existing condition.
Some older people who are being treated for a medical condition fear they cannot move to another provider.
Consumers have been encouraged to switch after the VHI said it was increasing the cost of some plans by 45pc.
Yesterday, the Health Insurance Authority (HIA) said it had recorded a 14-fold rise in calls to its helpline and visits to its website.
It explained that many of those in contact with it, particularly older people, were confused and mistakenly thought they would be refused cover if they were already suffering from a medical condition.
HIA boss Liam Sloyan said: "Consumers can be assured that any person can switch health insurance product without penalty, while maintaining existing benefits."
He added that a consumer could even switch health insurance provider if they phoned from a hospital bed while having treatment, as long as they opted for a health plan with similar benefits.
Mr Sloyan encouraged consumers to go to www.hia.ie or telephone 1850 929166.
The HIA will also be investigating reports that the VHI has been telling its customers they cannot move back to their original health plan within one year if they opt for a less expensive corporate plan.
Corporate plans are cheaper than individual health plans and often have better benefits. They are available to everyone, although they are only marketed at companies taking out health plans on behalf of all of their staff. These plans offer better value than the 10pc discount offered to groups.
Thousands of VHI customers are opting for a corporate plan equivalent to Plan B options after the company said the adult premium would rise by €444 to €1,430 from February 1.
The VHI yesterday said that people in a group scheme would have to come out of that scheme and make their own arrangements for payment directly to the VHI.
Health insurance experts said this appeared to be a change of tack, as up to now the insurer was allowing people to remain in a group scheme (where their employer deducts their premium monthly) while swapping an individual plan for a corporate one.
Meanwhile, the VHI confirmed that customers could change or renew their plan at any time during the year. It also apologised for delays getting through to its call centre, and said extra staff had been drafted in.
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