Significant increases in VHI health insurance premiums, proposed to take affect later this year, have been slammed as an "outrageous attack on families" by local public representatives.
Increases of up to 45% were announced by the company last week and at least a 15% increase in premiums will have to be paid by 60% of VHI customers.
The biggest premium increase, of 45%, will be imposed on customers of Plan B Options.
South Tipperry TDs Mattie McGrath, Tom Hayes and Senator Phil Prendergast have led local condemnation of the price increases.
The VHI's decision to significantly increase its premiums from February 1 has been described as an 'outrageous attack' on families and particularly those struggling to make ends meet by Deputy Mattie McGrath.
"It is a terrible blow that vulnerable families and older people are now faced with the prospect of having to cancel their health insurance. The current crisis in our hospitals will do nothing to alleviate their fears," said the deputy who has been a vocal advocate for the maintenance of services at South Tipperary General Hospital.
"I am appalled by this arbitrary price hike. Who is in charge of the VHI? Who are they answerable to? 'Light touch regulation' clearly resulted in no regulation. Surely the government and the Minister have to learn this lesson now," McGrath said.
"VHI are forcing people on to lower price, inferior plans. I have written to them to get an explanation for these hikes which are up to 45% for some of their health plans. Is this a deliberate strategy to get rid of customers?," asked McGrath. Fine Gael T.D. Tom Hayes has also strongly criticised the decision by the VHI to increase its prices.
"The decision by the VHI is another instance where the ordinary people are being hit by this recession. For many people, health insurance is the absolutely last thing that they will cut back on. For older people and families, it is vital to knowing that they have access to care when they need it.
"People are facing decreases in their take-home pay this week, and are trying desperately to make ends meet. For many people, finding the money to pay for their health insurance is a major achievement. The VHI have put this out of reach for many families and older people with their actions this week. "Plan B and Plan B Options customers, who include many older people, are the worst hit in terms of price increases – the Plan B price will increase by €317 to €1224, and Plan B Options will go up by €444 to €1430 annually.
Labour Senator Phil Prendergast has called on the Equality Authority to investigate whether VHI's proposed increase in premiums discriminates against older people. The Labour Party spokeswoman on the the Older Person said: "The Equality Authority should investigate whether VHI is open to legal challenge on age discrimination grounds after its decision to impose massive increases in premiums on schemes which attract older people. While most family plans are going up by 15% the Plan B schemes which are most popular with older people will go up by 35-45% from next month. Insurance policies cannot by law include additional premium weighting on age grounds but by singling out policies mainly bought by older people VHI is in danger of engaging in indirect and possibly direct discrimination. The company's chief executive has been clear that the cost of serving its large customer base of older people is at the heart of its financial problems and the dispute it has with its competitors and with the Government.
"It is shocking that many customers who have been with VHI for decades are going to pay even more or give up health insurance at a time in their lives when they are most likely to need it," Senator Prendergast said.
South Tipperay Sinn Fein general election candidate Michael Brown has described the price increases for VHI premiums as a further burden on families.
"These VHI rises could not have come at a worse time for hard-pressed families. Worst hit will be families with children, the same families who experience major mortgage debt and are being hit this month with increased Government levies on their incomes.
"The health insurance market expanded during the so-called Celtic Tiger years because many families with children, aware of the perils of relying totally on the public hospital system, took out personal health insurance. Now that market is shrinking again as unemployment has increased and people have had to give up their health insurance. All of this points to the need for fundamental health reform."