Ba mhaith liom buíochas a glacadh leat as ucht cead a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a ordú ar an Athló.
As Opposition spokesperson on Health, I have raised health insurance matters on as many as ten occasions in the past year in this House. Apart from hepatitis C, there is no other health issue that generates as much comment in this House.
During those debates I have been sharply critical of the VHI and have expressed alarm at the level of premium increases — 54 per cent over ten years and 35 per cent over the past four years, including a recent increase of 6 per cent — at a time when inflation was running at under 2 per cent per year. The increases have led me to coin the expression that instead of VHI standing for Voluntary Health Insurance, it stands for very high insurance.
I have also raised concern about the absence of a statutory council to represent consumers of health insurance and the VHI's row with private hospitals. Two other issues that I have raised are directly related to this debate.
In October 1995 the then chief executive of the VHI said in a speech that the organisation was considering charging higher premiums to people who joined at older ages. I made it clear that this discrimination would not be accepted by Fianna Fáil and that we would oppose any cherrypicking of younger customers. We are strongly committed to the concept of inter-generational solidarity. The VHI backed off any such plan claiming that the chief executive was thinking aloud and that such a thing could not happen because of the principle of community rating.
When Fianna Fáil raised this matter on Committee Stage of the VHI Bill on 14 December 1995 at the Select Committee on Social Affairs the Minister, Deputy Noonan, stated: "I assure older subscribers that they will be treated on an equitable basis with all other subscribers as heretofore". He also said that under the Health Insurance Act, 1994 it would be illegal for the VHI to depart from the principle of community rating which ensures that all subscribers are treated the same, regardless of age or medical condition.
Earlier this year I demanded a debate on the health insurance regulations made under the terms of the 1994 Act. I was concerned about certain matters in the regulations, including cover for psychiatric patients and outpatient cover. The Minister insisted that the status quo would apply with community rating. Following their introduction, it was announced that the British health insurer, BUPA, was entering the Irish market. I welcomed this announcement and said it was my hope that competition would be good for health insurance consumers.
Yesterday BUPA announced its various health insurance schemes and packages and said that the company's philosophy was about care, cure and choice. In its documentation it states that its essential scheme is community-rated. However, the company also has cash plans where costs vary according to the buyer's age. It is reported today that these plans bypass community rating and are not covered under the health insurance regulations. If so, this discrimination on age grounds is a serious threat to community rating.
I ask the Minister of State, on behalf of the Minister who acts as regulator of the health insurance industry, to clarify the position in relation to these plans. Do they infringe the community rating principle? Do they comply with the terms of the 1994 Act and, if not, what does the Minister intend to do? Does he plan to intervene and, if so, how, when and why?