AN announcement of up to a 45pc increase in premiums for some VHI customers was never going to be good news; but for it to come in the same month as most workers feel the first bite of the austerity budget in their pay packets, seems like adding insult to injury.
The bulk of the health insurer's 1.35 million subscribers will be hit with a hefty 15pc hike. However, those on the popular Plan B and Plan B Options face punitive increases of between 35pc and 45pc. Considering that many of these are elderly people and have no choice but to pay, the injustice in the scale of the rises is underlined.
The increases come on the back of the worst figures for the number of patients left on trolleys in our hospitals, an issue which is understandably of grave concern to the public. Yet just like the inexorable rise in VHI premiums, there seems to be no impetus from the Government to deal with our dysfunctional health service or the black-hole within it which swallows up public funding.
Apart from the inequity of the rises, the motivation behind them is equally perplexing.
Is the health insurer actually trying to drive customers into the arms of its competition? Or is there a more subtle agenda of trying to make itself more attractive for privatisation by boosting revenues?
Only time will tell, but what we already know from bitter experience is that the spiralling costs and the corresponding decline in the standard of experience of patients in national hospitals is unsustainable.
The Government's much vaunted "risk equalisation" system is a shambles. Last night, VHI chief executive Jimmy Tolan admitted that the insurer had lost €100m on its Plan B patients, most of whom would be elderly. Mr Tolan said that it was with "regret" that the new charges were being introduced and he insisted that his organisation had attempted to contain costs. Quite obviously it will need to try a lot harder if such losses are ever to be stemmed.
Health Minister Mary Harney also has much to answer for. It is the job of the Government to guarantee that a quality health service is delivered that is affordable and accessible to all. Medicine aspires to give patients a clean bill of health but in Ireland all we are left with is the bill. Throughout the recent crisis Ms Harney's silence has been reprehensible.
"Just where is Mary Harney, and why at a time when people expect some leadership and some action, has she gone to ground?" asked Labour's health spokeswoman Jan O'Sullivan yesterday. Considering that patients have already had to cope with a scarcity of beds, nurses, and doctors, perhaps the presence of a minister is too much to expect.