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Minister for Health Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

James Reilly

James Reilly

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Minister for Health Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

PEOPLE who smoke 20 cigarettes a day could afford to take out private health insurance for a fraction of what they spend every year on their habit, Health Minister Leo Varadkar has claimed.

They shell out over €3,600 a year on cigarettes but would get a basic health insurance policy for around €400, and over-35s who join up for the first time before May 1 would avoid loadings, he added.

Mr Varadkar defended the new rules, which will impose loadings on older groups who join up after that date.

He said he accepted there are people who cannot afford to take out private cover.

But he said: "There are people who can afford health insurance who don't take it out. Anyone who can afford to smoke 20 cigarettes a day can afford health insurance."

The new rules are necessary to ensure health insurance, which is based on a community rating system, remains affordable, he said in an interview on Newstalk's 'Pat Kenny Show'.

Addiction

Asked to comment on the minister's remarks, Dr Garrett McGovern, a Dublin GP who specialises in addiction counselling, said he regarded them as "flippant".

He said: "Out of all the addictions I treat, the toughest one to crack is nicotine.

"It is very difficult to quit. It can be a chronic, relapsing dependency."

He pointed out that it is not as simple as telling people to stop to save money.

The numbers quitting are still low relative to those who smoke, and there is a need for more supports.

A spokeswoman for the Health Insurance Authority, which regulates private health insurance, confirmed the number of visitors to its website hs increased from 1,000 a day in February to 2,500 a day in March.

Telephone and email queries have risen from 450 in February to 1,000 to date in March.

She said the phone and email queries are predominantly from consumers seeking information on new regulations, while others are reviewing alternative product offerings.

A sample of health insurance plans across all the main insurers for a family of two adults and two children shows they range in price from €1,056 to €1,178, with cover for most or all public hospitals.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar said he has told hospital managers to stand up to doctors.

"Managers said they don't feel they have the authority to stand up to consultants and in some cases they don't try hard enough," he claimed.

Mr Varadkar also said the recently advertised jobs for 30 hospital consultants who are being offered improved salaries have all attracted applicants.

He also implicitly criticised the elaborate plans of his predecessor James Reilly to dismantle the existing structures in the health service, while admitting the HSE is badly organised

So-called root and branch reform has the potential to cause major problems in the health service, and it is not like running a factory, he added.

Dr Reilly had pledged to dismantle the HSE, and told the current Director General Tony O'Brien to wind it up. All of this has now been shelved.

Meanwhile, speaking on the row over the HIQA independent investigation into standards of care in Portlaoise Hospital, which led to threats of court action from the HSE over findings made against its staff, Mr Varadkar said he expects it to be published in a few weeks.

Mark Molloy, one of the parents who lost his baby son in Portlaoise after the infant suffered a lack of oxygen, spoke of his dismay at comments by Mr O'Brien about the HIQA findings, which the HSE boss said were based on hearsay and needed to be verified.

"Our son Mark is dead. If he wants to come to the graveyard, see his little white cross and that should be enough verification for him," Mr Molloy said.

Irish Independent