VHI customers were dealt another blow yesterday when the health insurer rejected calls to postpone its premium hikes.
The VHI said it would be another two years before legislation was in place to support companies with a higher proportion of older, more expensive customers.
It was responding to calls by junior health minister John Moloney, who said the Government would shortly be publishing new legislation on risk equalisation that aimed to create a fairer playing field for insurers like the VHI, which must charge the same rate for younger and older customers.
VHI subscribers are facing premium increases of between 15pc and 45pc from February, prompting a major backlash from many of its long-time customers.
One customer told the Irish Independent yesterday how she had been trying to get through to its customer helpline for 40 minutes only to be told that she would not receive a return call for up to 72 hours.
Quinn Healthcare, one of the VHI's main rivals, said it had seen sales jump three-fold since the price-increase announcement, with families in particular switching over.
And the Health Insurance Authority (HIA), the watchdog that provides free information on the range of policies available to customers, said hits to its website had been 20 times higher than last month following the VHI announcement.
"People generally want to know how they can reduce the cost of their health insurance.
"They want to know about alternative plans from VHI Healthcare and from alternative providers," a spokesperson said.
"Many people are explicitly asking what corporate plans are available from the various insurers. They also want to know if a switch to a similar plan with VHI Healthcare or another insurer will leave them as well-covered as their existing plan.
"They are seeking reassurance that no waiting periods will apply to continuing benefits due to a switch of product or insurer," the HIA spokesperson added.
The VHI spokesperson confirmed that a lot of people were making general inquiries as to which plan they were on and how they would be impacted by the price increase.
"It is important to note that the price increase is effective from February 1, 2011, but is on a renewal-by-renewal basis. Sixty per cent of customers will see a 15pc increase."
Asked if extra staff had been deployed to deal with the inquiries, the spokesperson said: "The phones are busy and the nature of the calls can be complex and long. We have additional staff allocated to take calls and also to make call backs to customers who have left messages for us. We are working our way through this."