Monday 19 February 2018

Opposition grows to plan for universal healthcare

Health Minister James Reilly. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Health Minister James Reilly. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Eilish O'Regan Health Correspondent

THE Government is facing huge resistance to a central feature of its universal healthcare plan that will prevent people with private health insurance from jumping the queue.

More than two million people have health insurance but under Health Minister James Reilly's plan they will not be able to avoid waiting lists.

Almost nine out of 10 people (88pc) who currently pay for cover say they don't want to queue for treatment, according to a new poll by Red C.

It comes as the Government launches its plans for universal health insurance (UHI), promising an end to the two-tier health service in 2019, but failing to give any guarantees about dealing with waiting-list delays.

The poll, obtained by the Irish Independent, was commissioned by the Independent Hospitals Association of Ireland, representing 20 private hospitals, and was conducted in February.

It shows that the Health Minister faces an uphill battle to persuade privately insured people of the value of universal healthcare.

Almost nine out of 10 also fear not having access to new treatments if they were not insured.

Nearly half blame the Government for failing to check steep hikes in health insurance costs, while three-quarters of people also believe that their private health insurance reduces pressure on public hospitals.

Dr Reilly was again forced to defend his controversial health plan yesterday amid concern about the cost for working families.

The minister insisted that average income earners will not pay more than what they pay at present: they will pay "just a fraction of that", he said.

"The current cost, on average, for private health insurance is €920... There is no evidence that the costs will be higher, we believe it will be cheaper under Universal Health Insurance (UHI)."

Dr Reilly has said that the Government will decide which services will be included in the basket offered to patients.

He also committed that those currently in receipt of free medicines will not see any change to their services.

And the minister said younger people would be offered the means to reduce their health insurance cover by way of "deductible rates" to allow them tailor their package to their reduced needs compared with elderly patients.

More than two million people still have health insurance and the Government will have to convince this key group that they will not lose out under its radical proposals.

Independent Hospitals Association of Ireland chief executive Catherine Whelan said: "The universal healthcare plan is to have nobody getting faster access to care than another with the same condition. But how will that work? Our concern is that the waiting times will be set by the least efficient provider."

She pointed to figures showing nearly 54,000 adults and children on public waiting lists for surgery and another 300,000 in the queue to see a specialist with thousands more joining their ranks every week.

Ms Whelan said: "Less people are coming through the doors of private hospitals because of the numbers who have given up insurance or downgraded their plans. So there is spare capacity in private hospitals, which the public hospitals can use now to clear the waiting lists down by 2019. There is no point in waiting until a year before it is introduced."

But Ms Whelan said her organisation was concerned that those who already had health insurance could come off worse under universal health insurance.

This is because the Government's white paper says those who want to to buy extra cover – on top of the basics – to get a private room will face risk-rated premiums, rising according to age or pre-existing conditions.

The new poll gives insights into the reasons driving people to hold on to their insurance, despite economic pressures.


More than half would be worried about the quality of care they receive as a public patient, and 64pc are concerned they could not access a private hospital. Other poll findings revealed three-quarters of people believe private health insurance reduces pressure on public hospitals.

It also found 73pc pay their own health insurance with 13pc having it paid in full or subsidised by their employer.

More than one third have used their insurance in the past year to access hospital care, but 7pc fear they will have to cancel their policy at the next renewal and 17pc may downgrade cover.

The minister has said that only after public consultation – and an examination by an expert commission in the next year – will the Government finally decide if universal health insurance is the way forward.

Irish Independent

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