FEWER people than feared dropped their health insurance after hikes in the cost of plans earlier this year.
The impact of the price hikes from the beginning of this year was not as bad as predicted with a relatively modest 14,000 dropping their cover in the first three months.
There were dire predictions that the hikes imposed by all three insurers would make it unaffordable for many subscribers and lead to a haemorrhage of members.
Vhi increased its prices by up to 45pc from January, followed by an increase of up 14pc by Aviva. Quinn Healthcare imposed rises of 7pc and 6pc.
However, while many are still hanging on to private cover, insurers admit that large numbers have had to go for cheaper plans. They also expect the numbers holding health insurance to continue to shrink.
The figures from the Health Insurance Authority (HIA) show that 49.6pc of the population are still insured compared to 51.7pc in December 2008.
It showed that 16,000 abandoned their health insurance in the first three months of last year and a total of 82,000 have left in two and a half years.
The HIA reported that people are now becoming more conscious of shopping around and this year it had 210,000 hits on its website -- which contains price comparisons -- a big jump compared to 2010.
Some subscribers have not felt the brunt of the increases yet because their policies have not reached their renewal date.
The authority, which receives internal data from the companies, said the average health insurance claim cost for people 80 years and over is €3,045 compared to €400 for those aged 30 to 40.
Asked to comment on the figures, a spokesperson for the Vhi said: "We anticipate that the health insurance market will shrink further in 2011 and feel this is somewhat inevitable given the economic climate and the ongoing reduction in disposable income."
She said that in 2009 Vhi lost around 112,000 customers and a further 50,000 in 2010.
"We did lose some customers in the first quarter of the year. In 2010 our experience was that the bulk of customers who left us in the year did so at the start of the year and in fact the losses were not as significant for the second half of the year.
"It's too early to predict what the outcome for 2011 will be.
"Membership losses are being driven by two key factors including continuing economic conditions and unemployment at historically high levels. The other is competitors cherry picking younger healthier members."
She stressed: "Regardless of the size of the market, the key issue remains the unresolved question of a fully functioning risk-equalisation scheme and the need for this to ensure health insurance remains affordable for older, sicker private health insurance customers."
VHI chief executive Jimmy Tolan recently announced he was leaving the company after disagreeing with plans by Health Minister James Reilly to break it up.