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Competitors are swamped after VHI hikes prices

Health insurance companies, brokers and companies offering health cash plans have been swamped by callers this week following the announcement by the VHI that it will increase its premiums by up to 45 per cent.

Even the VHI admits that people are 'worried' and staff there were described as being at 'full throttle' in terms of dealing with upset customers.

VHI was keen to stress that not everyone will be affected by the increases -- a spokesperson for VHI said that there was a general perception among their customers that they were on Plan B, but in fact there had been a move away by customers from Plan B in recent years.

"Only 29 per cent of our customers are on Plan B, but that would have been 70 per cent a few years ago. But everyone seems to think they are on Plan B," a spokeswoman said.

She added that while some people were calling to cancel their policies, others were re-registering to avail of last year's prices or moving to different policies at lower prices.

Meanwhile, the worry and concern among ordinary people about the latest hikes was reflected in a Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research telephone poll which found that 47 per cent of people believe that it is no longer worth paying for health insurance.

Overall, 53 per cent of those polled thought it was still worth paying for private health insurance. The general attitude was one of resignation rather than enthusiasm with many stating they felt they had little choice but to continue paying due to lack of alternative options.

There was a call by some respondents for a national health insurance plan which everyone could access.

"I hate having to give up VHI, especially as we have kids but we just cannot afford another price increase," was the response of one female respondent from outside Dublin.

Another city respondent said: "I will continue to keep paying insurance but I don't know if it's worth it any more. Also I don't know how much longer I can afford to pay it."

Plan B will increase by 35 per cent and only the Plan B Options policy will increase by 45 per cent.

While conceding that many customers were angry with the VHI, the spokeswoman said that people were annoyed "on top of a lot of other issues they have to contend with".

She also denied that the call centre had collapsed, as had been reported.

"We know when we introduce a price increase it's going to be busy -- but, that said, it has been extremely busy and we still have people to get back to, which will take 24 hours, but they will be dealt with," she said.

Quinn Healthcare said that there had been a 100 per cent increase in people inquiring about policies since the VHI announcement -- mostly related to family insurance, but they had a large number of staff dedicated to answering those queries.

A spokesperson for Aviva said that the phones there were "ringing off the hook" from callers trying to obtain health insurance and that demand had soared since the VHI announcement.

But independent health insurance adviser Roisin Lyons says that worried consumers should seek independent advice on their health insurance needs and not depend on advice from the health insurance companies.

Ms Lyons -- who is managing director of Lyons Financial Services -- set up the company in 2004 to provide independent insurance advice.

Her company has been receiving 12 times the number of calls it used to since the VHI announcement, which she called a "disaster for families".

She said that talking to the health insurance companies was not a good idea for worried consumers as the companies had a vested interest in keeping people paying their premiums.

"It's very important if they can't afford cover that they get independent advice and not simply cease paying premiums. Once the cover is gone for 13 weeks, they can't re-instate it without having a break in cover and serving a waiting period. If someone has a pre-existing condition, that wait is five years. People need to seek advice because VHI are going to recommend their products to people."

She said her company would provide advice to anyone seeking information and help and described the VHI decision as "staggering" -- given that it would affect people who had paid premiums to the company for years.

HSF Health Plan -- a company which doesn't provide health insurance per se but cash back for health expenses -- said that their callers had increased by a factor of three and they were capable of dealing with the increase in volume.

Sunday Independent