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Smart Consumer: Why the cost of health insurance doesn't have to make you feel sick

Everyday medical expenses, such as visits to the GP or dentist and prescriptions, consultations and treatments, have been rising so strongly that families are now vastly underestimating these costs, according to a new study.

Market research firm Amárach Consulting, on behalf of health cash-plan provider HSF, reveals that half of Irish households underestimate their spend on routine medical expenses by nearly 30%.

Families with young children are miscalculating by almost a half (45%), while fewer than 20% of Irish households are making efforts to budget for these costs.

More than 60% of households with children confirm that everyday healthcare bills have risen over the last 12 months.

1I certainly wouldn't argue that routine medical costs seem to keep going up. The question is, what can I do about it?

There are a few things you can do. One of them is to shop around for GPs and dentists. Since June of this year, dentists are now obliged by a new code of practice to display their prices where patients can see them before consultation. Many dentists are advertising aggressively, with some offering free check-ups.

But shopping around for doctors is still not that easy. According to a study published last year by the National Consumer Agency, only 50pc of doctors displayed their prices.

This varies a great deal depending on where in the country you live. For instance, you are far more likely to find GP clinic's prices displayed if you live in Tallaght or Walkinstown in Dublin (80pc) than in Cork (22pc).

But it's still worth checking out prices where possible, and since the survey was conducted, things may have improved.

Savings: Up to €35 for a GP visit and €85 for a dental check-up

2 Even if I shop around, I still can't afford to visit a GP as often as I need to.

If your household income has fallen sharply, you might be within the income limits to qualify for a GP visit card, which entitles you to visit your family doctor for free.

According to the HSE, nearly 20,000 extra people applied for GP visit cards in 2010, a rise of 9% on the previous year, bringing the total to nearly 120,000 by the end of last year.

You can now apply online via www.medicalcard.ie

Savings: Up to €70 per visit

3 What about prescriptions? The costs of these never seem to fall.

There are two things you could try here. The first is to shop around different pharmacies, because prices can vary, particularly for popular, non-prescription drugs.

The second thing is to seek out cheaper, generic brands of prescription drug. When a pharmaceutical company invents a new drug, they will charge a very high price. But when its patent runs out, other companies can copy the drug and sell it much more cheaply.

However, many pharmacies here don't even stock generic drugs. And even where they do, they are not allowed to dispense a generic drug if the doctor has prescribed the branded equivalent.

But new legislation is being finalised to oblige pharmacists to let customers know if an alternative generic drug is available, as well as a new system of drug pricing that should drive down the price of generic drugs.

In the meantime, there is nothing stopping you asking your doctor if there is a generic alternative for your next prescription (or find out yourself), and if there is, ask him/her to write it in.

Savings: Not much at the moment, but it should get better

4 Fair enough, but it's my health insurance bill that's causing me the biggest pain.

Households are cutting back on health-insurance cover, according to health-insurance broker Jeremy Tucker of Buyhealthinsurance.ie.

"Everyone is downgrading at the moment, especially with VHI, or switching or cancelling their cover altogether," he said.

In the process, many people are realising that they may be over-insured anyway.

For instance, why bother having your children on the same private plan when there is no private children's hospital in Ireland?

Many people are downgrading their kids to a public hospital plan or removing them, says Tucker.

But you can also change to a cheaper corporate plan, which insurers market to employers but, if you ask for it, they can't legally refuse to put you on it. Some corporate plans offer similar, if not better cover, for less.

For instance, if you have the popular VHI Plan B, which costs €1,224.44 for an adult for a year, you could switch to its Company Plan Plus product providing very similar levels of cover for just €950. Or you could just switch to a similar plan with a competitor, such as Aviva's Level 2 Hospital plan for €941.

You can compare plans, including corporate plans, using the excellent comparison facility on the Health Information Authority's website, www.hia.ie.

Savings: Up to €300 for individuals, much more for families

5 What about those health-cash plans I keep hearing about?

A health-cash plan is a type of health insurance that is becoming more popular. It offers cash benefits for more everyday health costs, such as a visit to the GP, dentist or optician, physiotherapy, chiropody and even the purchase of a hearing aid.

Many people will have both types: a basic hospital plan from VHI, Aviva or Quinn for serious hospital costs, while the cash plan covers the more routine stuff. HSF, the main cash plan provider, offers cover from as little as €9.50 a month.

6 OK, so is there anything else I should consider?

Don't forget that you can claim tax relief for many medical expenses, as long as you haven't been reimbursed for these by your health insurance.

You can claim for medical expenses for up to four years after the end of the tax year to which the claim relates.

But bear in mind that for any expenses incurred after January 2009, the relief will only be at the standard 20% rate rather than your highest rate.

Irish Independent