PMI: What do the NHS reforms mean for it?

Madeleine Davies asks PMI providers how their products will evolve

When Dr Natalie-Jane Macdonald, managing director of Bupa Health & Wellbeing, listens to calls from new and existing customers, she gains an insight into their perception of her biggest competitor.

“Health insurance is not a frivolous purchase and from existing customers, especially older ones, there is a real nervousness about going into the NHS,” she says. “Despite the economic pressures on people and businesses, we are seeing higher degrees of retention and lower lapses than we would have thought. New customers are saying that they no longer feel confident about relying on the NHS.”

Whether or not this perception is justified, its source is clearly identifiable. For weeks now, the debate about the future of the NHS has been played out in the national media, with the Government’s insistence on the need for radical reform pitted against clinicians’ warnings of creeping privatisation and system-wide meltdown.

“There is no day that goes by without something in the newspaper making the NHS look like it is really struggling under pressure and I think people are really worried about the approach that the Government is taking to give doctors a lot more decisions and power,” reports Peter Lurie of North London intermediary Proactive Medical & Life.

The NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, has warned in the past of a “perception gap” between the experience of patients and the views of the public. Patients repeatedly report high levels of satisfaction with the NHS and the care they have received. The latest survey of inpatients carried out by the regulator the Care Quality Commission found that 44% rated their care as “excellent” and 35% “very good”. Just 2% rated it poor.

Nevertheless, private medical insurance (PMI) providers believe that the changes in the NHS landscape, and the concern this has generated, represent an opportunity to promote their offering to the public.

Predictions: The NHS

Vastly reduced waiting times remain the major legacy of the Labour government’s investment in the NHS and while the coalition government has pledged to move the service away from “process” targets, any sign of extended waits will undoubtedly be seized upon as evidence of the folly of its reforms. Parliament’s Health Select Committee has already warned that the NHS is facing an “unprecedented” challenge in making billions of pounds of savings while undergoing wide scale restructuring.

Mike O Brien, head of intermediary sales at PMI provider Exeter Family Friendly, believes that waiting lists are “likely” to rise, “certainly in areas or treatments that are deemed not to be life threatening or potentially serious” and Bupa’s Dr Macdonald reports that we are already seeing “a bit of unwinding” of progress on waiting times, as well as “restricted access to care.”

She believes that the NHS is “patchy”, leaving patients “unsure whether or not some treatments might be restricted,” and argues that this will result in an eventual upturn in the private market.

Tal Gilbert, head of research and development at PruHealth, the PMI provider, expects to see more local variation as a result of the move to GP commissioning consortia (see page 33).

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