Image: Flickr/Traci Lawson
Like any big business the UK's £5 billion medical insurance industry has to sell its product to satisfy share-holders. An abundance of advertising and websites extoll the virtues of private health insurance. Their message can usually be summed up thus:
“You can jump queues, have a TV in your room, choose your specialist and appointment, and perhaps have treatment unavailable on the NHS”. What such messages fail to tell us is the following.
1. Private medicine over-investigates and over-treats and you may get surgery that is not in your best interests. In the US it is estimated at least a third of all healthcare activity brings no benefits to patients. Every link in the chain has a financial incentive to do more to you and that can be dangerous.
2. Private hospitals do
not have the same level of scrutiny of safety as NHS facilities. In fact it
is very difficult
to get worthwhile information from them. As you cannot find out properly about
safety and risk, what value is there in being able to select your specialist?
3. Increasingly, you won’t have that choice anyway. Some companies are increasingly restricting the hospitals and specialists used. If you want your cataracts done, some companies now send you to Optical Express.
price of private health cover has nearly quadrupled over the last decade. And
premiums rise even more sharply as you get older. But even with the most
expensive policy, full reimbursement of all costs is not guaranteed. You might
have to fight for it - not much different from insuring your car. New terms and conditions have been introduced that
exclude policyholders from claiming, apply
‘excesses’ or co-payments, find excuses not to reimburse certain
fees and limit how much can be claimed in a year. Complaints
5. Companies will encourage you go for NHS
treatment if your care is expensive. BUPA have been
criticised for offering ‘bribes’
to policyholders to use the NHS rather than their private hospitals.
6. Care can be very “fragmented” when it is
vital that it is integrated well, for example with cancer care that requires a
good team approach. Some companies boast of being
able to supply cancer drugs – but
the drugs only materialise if all NHS routes have been exhausted first, and
patients often have to plead
with your insurer to keep supplying the drugs longer than a year.
7. Private medicine in the U.S.A. spends 36% on administration. The Institute of Medicine estimates that an astonishing $750 billion a year of healthcare expenditure is wasted through fraud, overcharging, unnecessary treatment and other leakages. 62% of US personal bankruptcies are due to medical bills – and of these, 78% had insurance (but it found ways not to meet their costs). Insurance companies control everything and often dictate who your doctor is. If you want to help push us in that direction, then support private medicine.
Private medical care is expensive – so the healthcare firms admit their big hope is a failing NHS. As Spire told its shareholders recently: “Growing NHS deficits will put increasing pressure on waiting lists and drive increased formal and informal rationing of NHS procedures, which will over time significantly grow demand for private care”.
In other words, the private sector is licking its lips at the idea that underinvestment in the NHS, bed closures, hospital downgrades and rationing of services will drives patients to private hospitals (either funded by insurance, or pay as you go).
And the NHS is paying them large sums, too, as government underinvestment forces NHS hospitals to ‘outsource’ patients to private hospitals to plug the gap between supply and demand. In West Kent, the new expensive PFI Pembury hospital has only one MRI scanner and so has had to “outsource” requests to local private hospitals. Mental health patients are now routinely sent long distances to private sector beds because there are no NHS beds available. The trend is only likely to increase as we face the worst NHS underinvestment in a generation.
If you want healthcare’s prime raison d’etre to be not a service, but a business making some people very rich, like in the USA, then you can help by taking out private health insurance. You can please the numerous MPs who have a financial interest in private healthcare companies. If you think a future where your health is looked after in the same way as your car is worth aspiring to, then sign up today.
If however you see the benefits of us truly all “being in this together”, helping each other, and want to support rather than run-down the most cost-effective healthcare system in the world, then forget private health insurance. Don’t waste your money, or risk your health – but demand politicians change direction back towards a publicly funded, publicly provided and publicly accountable health service.