I propose to take Questions Nos. 72 and 301 together.
I am very aware that health insurance is becoming harder to afford, in particular for older people, as insurers increasingly tailor their insurance plans towards younger, healthier customers. The Government is committed to keeping down the cost of health insurance so that it is affordable for as many people as possible and is also strongly committed to protecting community rating, whereby older and less healthy customers should pay the same amount for the same cover as younger and healthier people.
To support the principle of community rating, the Programme for Government contains a commitment to put a permanent scheme of risk equalisation in place. This is a key requirement for the existing private health insurance market and is designed to keep health insurance affordable for older persons and to maintain the stability of the market. I was pleased, therefore, to recently publish the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill, 2012 on 18 October, to give effect to a new Risk Equalisation Scheme (RES) to be applied from 1 January 2013. An effective and robust RES is required in the Irish private health insurance market in order to protect affordability for those who need it most.
There can be little doubt that price increases will make it more difficult for persons who hold private health insurance to renew their policies. I have consistently raised the issue of costs with health insurers and am determined to address costs in the sector in the interests of consumers. I will continue to focus strongly on this issue.
I am keen to explore all available measures to limit the costs related to health insurance. In February of this year I established the Health Insurance Consultative Forum which comprises representatives from the country's main health insurance companies, the Health Insurance Authority (HIA) and the Department of Health. This Forum has been established with a view to generating ideas which would help address health insurance costs. Its core focus is on identifying ways of addressing costs throughout the industry, whilst always respecting the requirements of competition law. Bilateral meetings have taken place with each insurer where they have brought forward their own ideas for cost savings in the market. The Forum will also give a voice to the insurers in the development of the new Universal Health Insurance model. I have also made it clear to the health insurers that I believe that significant savings can still be made, the effect of which can be to minimise the need for increases in premiums.
In this regard, VHI has commissioned consultants to carry out an external review of their claims. The review is nearing completion and will look at the opportunities and costs involved in possible reductions in utilisation that can be achieved by implementing appropriate utilisation management approaches.
I would also strongly advise consumers to shop around for the health insurance plan that best suits their needs. Consumers have a legal right to switch between or within insurers to get better value and to reduce their premium costs. The HIA provides information to consumers regarding their rights and also on health insurance plans and benefits. The HIA's website www.hia.ie has a useful plan comparison tool which assists in finding suitable and competitive health insurance plans.