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Smart Consumer: I want cheaper health cover, so what are my options?

Q Many readers are asking about private health insurance, such as Patrick who, along with his wife, has a Plan B Options policy with the VHI.

Patrick writes: "This insurance has gone up by €888 and we are both old-aged pensioners and have been with VHI for more than 30 years, but we want to take out a new, similar (but cheaper) policy starting immediately."

Patrick would like to know what his options are.

A Patrick (and everyone else) has every right to switch to a different plan or to switch provider and is entitled to do this at any time without penalty, irrespective of age or health.

VHI's premiums have risen by up to 45% from this Tuesday, Aviva announced a price increase of 14% from March, and Quinn's premiums have already risen from 8% to 25% from January 1, so it's time for everyone to assess their needs and options.

In Patrick's case, he explained that his policy was renewed last November and this means that his premium will not rise until the policy's next renewal date in November this year. This means that he has plenty of time to think of his options.

Patrick may have renewed again before this Tuesday, meaning he would be on the old rate for an extra three months until next February 2012. For any Aviva customers it would be wise to renew now before March, to avail of current rates for a further full year.

Switching to an equivalent company or corporate plan with your provider could save you hundreds of euro and all of us are entitled to buy them even though they are not marketed to the general public.

Switching provider to get a cheaper policy is another option, and you can do this at any time.

If you do switch to a lower plan to save money, be aware that waiting periods may apply to aspects of the cover if you upgrade again and these can be very long -- up to two years for under 65s and up to five years for over 65s.

Another option is to investigate cash plans from the Hospital Saturday Fund (HSF). Under this scheme, you get cash back for everyday out-patient expenses, but will not be covered for hospital stays. Depending on circumstances, many are switching to this or mixing and matching with private health insurance.

The most important thing is to match your needs and that of your family with what's on offer, at a price that is right for you.

Have a good browse on the Health Insurance Authority's website, www.hia.ie, to compare the cover and prices of all policies available.

Irish Independent