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HSE has been milking the private patient cash cow at our expense

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'The HSE says it no longer designates 'private' and 'public' beds and says everyone gets the same treatment in hospital' (stock photo)

'The HSE says it no longer designates 'private' and 'public' beds and says everyone gets the same treatment in hospital' (stock photo)

'The HSE says it no longer designates 'private' and 'public' beds and says everyone gets the same treatment in hospital' (stock photo)

News that eight in 10 patients arriving into public hospitals with private health insurance so their insurers can be charged for their care comes as no surprise to me.

I wasn't even offered a form when my father was taken by ambulance to A&E earlier this year after collapsing at home.

A previous patient of the same hospital, his records already marked him down as 'private', and, to be honest, in the maelstrom of shock, panic and worry when a loved one is suddenly taken ill, the very last thing you think about is pieces of paper waved in front of you.

He was on a trolley for almost three days in the Armageddon that is the emergency department before being transferred to a ward where he subsequently spent several months.

Last week he passed away, peacefully, and we received the bill for his initial care.

For just under six weeks spent in a public bed in a busy ward in a State-run public hospital, the VHI, his insurer, was charged a whopping €33,000 - or more than €800 per night, by the HSE.

The insurance ran out after that, and he was transferred, seamlessly to become a 'public' patient for the remainder of his time there.

He stayed in the same bed, the same ward, with the same wonderful doctors and nurses caring for him, using the same procedures and the same medication. This time, all for €80 a night, paid by the taxpayer.

We didn't even notice it had happened, because nobody told us.

It's the 'system' at work.

A HSE administrator who probably never met my dad, and made no contact with us, simply ticked a different box, on another form, to change his status, as the thousands of euro racked up behind the scenes.

In other words, his insurance was pointless - there was no special care that dad received despite diligently paying his premium every year.

Nobody approached us to give him a private room, a different consultant or better treatment, but everyone, like us, who already struggles to afford private cover will now find their premiums going up because of my dad and people like him.

The survey, commissioned by Insurance Ireland, found that 65pc of people are unaware of the distinction between public and private.

And from personal experience, if anyone in a hospital uniform approaches you at this most vulnerable time to ask you questions about your loved one, you want to answer them truthfully and quickly.

You tell them what medication he's on, who his GP is, his date of birth and so on.

If they then ask if he has insurance, what are you going to say? The inference, whether intended or not, is that he'll somehow get 'better' treatment with than without, so you answer, honestly, that he does.

The HSE is often accused of being bureaucratic and unwieldy, constantly running out of money and not managing its budgets, but it's cleverly been handed a cash cow that is the easiest thing in the world to milk.

The public bed charge was hiked ten-fold by former health minister James Reilly in 2014.

It resulted in immediate increases in health insurance premiums, and although the rip-off has raked in multiples of what was expected for the HSE - more than €200m per year - there's no let-up.

Both subsequent ministers, Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, continue to back the ridiculous scheme, which, along with the €400 levy on private insurance policies, continues to punish people who decide to take the burden off the public system so that they can access healthcare.

Insurers are fighting a losing battle.

Laya Healthcare has blamed its most recent premium hikes directly on the public bed charge, while the CEO of Irish Life Health told me it was costing it four times more than it had anticipated.

There was a time, if you were a private patient, that it meant something, rightly or wrongly.

You got a room to yourself, en-suite, with a bit of peace and quiet, perhaps better food too. Certainly, a choice of consultant and maybe a few more nurses popping their head around the door.

That's all done away with.

The HSE says it no longer designates 'private' and 'public' beds and says everyone gets the same treatment in hospital.

Maybe that's a good thing, but not everyone gets charged through the nose for it.

Perhaps the only solution is to have a system where all 'private' patients should go only to private hospitals.

This would take the burden completely off the public system.

But, of course, the HSE would hate that.

Its millions in secret income would stop instantly.

No wonder it is no rush to move along so-called 'bed blockers'.

Irish Independent