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Sinead Ryan: How to sniff out the hidden extras and best deals in the health insurance maze

Apathy is a health insurer's best friend. There are only three providers in this restricted market and the different plans are a minefield to get through.

No wonder so many customers are terrified of switching insurer because they don't understand what's on offer and are afraid they'll lose out.

It's almost impossible to make comparisons. However, the Health Insurance Authority, a State body, is valiantly attempting to do just that, and today we offer a rundown of the most popular plans on the market.

The VHI has about 60pc market share and a disproportionate number of older, less healthy customers. Quinn and Aviva hold the balance and due to the Government's risk equalisation measures, both charge you for covering the VHI shortfall.

The number of people with private health insurance dipped below 50pc for the first time this year, reflecting the expensive nature of the products on offer, so getting good value has never been more important.

All insurers report customers are switching to lower-cost policies, which may have more restrictive benefits.

To try to get value, you really need to decide what's important for you. If you have small children and are constantly visiting the doctor with sniffles and rashes, than obviously a GP refund option will be important.

If you're a senior, maternity benefits aren't necessary. If you have a condition which lands you in hospital regularly, then a private room might tick your boxes. It's all about paying for what you want, and avoiding costs where you can.

VHI's most popular plan is B Options. We've compared it here with Aviva's Level 2 Complete Health and Quinn's Essential Plus, which are the closest. All offer very comprehensive cover but you do have to trawl a bit to find the hidden extras and decide if they're worthwhile.

Here's where the www.hia.ie site helps. You put in what's important to you, it offers you an array of suitable products from the three providers and you can do a direct comparison yourself.

In terms of differences between the plans, in our example, Quinn shows the best premium. It's worth noting that:

• Children are more expensive with Quinn than other insurers. The VHI, for example covers 4th and subsequent children under 18 for free so if you have a larger family, their quote may well be less. Students however are slightly cheaper with Quinn than the others.

• Quinn won't pay for accommodation for a parent to accompany a child in hospital; Aviva pays up to €560 and VHI €160.

•Quinn offers a broader range of alternative practitioners including homeopathy and reflexology; however for in-patient psyciatric care, it limits benefits to 100 days - the others are 180.

• VHI is the only insurer to offer outpatient 'mental health therapy' at €20 x 1

• Quinn charges an extra 3pc credit charge if you pay monthly; the others do not.

We have chosen very comprehensive plans. There are cheaper versions available from all providers which may offer just the benefits you need. Likewise, there are fuller and more expensive options, depending on your personal circumstances. Our "family" may not be yours!

•Don't be put off by the dozens of policies on offer -- many are copies of each other offered to companies, or groups of employees. Legally, you too have to be offered these, so if you find one cheaper than yours, ask for it.

•Don't allow money to be your only decider. There's no point in cutting costs only to find something you need is not covered on a cheaper plan.

Note: Do not rely on generalised quotes for adults or children which are often a "prices from" figure. Either phone or complete a personalised quote online to get the true cost.