Finance Consumer Private health insurance providers have failed the pandemic test

Private health insurance providers have failed the pandemic test

Of Australia's five largest private health providers, only one passed Choice's pub test. Photo: TND
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Australia’s largest private health insurance providers have failed their pandemic check-up.

That’s according to consumer group Choice’s scorecard, which saw just one of the country’s five top insurers receive a pass mark for their response to the coronavirus crisis.

But there has been some sharp rebuttal to the consumer advocacy group’s report, with two insurers branding the findings a “publicity stunt”.

HBF was the only provider to pass the test, but bottom-of-the-pack Medibank and Bupa aren’t happy with their report cards.

Choice health campaigner Dean Price said the duo – the country’s largest providers – fell short in helping financially affected customers despite having capacity to do much more.

Medibank and Bupa’s intended October premium rise, which coincides with reductions in JobSeeker payments and the JobKeeper wage subsidy, was a display of “outright greed”, Mr Price said.

Only one of the country’s main providers achieved a passing grade. Photo: Choice

Choice handed providers a tick or cross based on whether they had implemented new hardship policies, the ease in which customers could access those policies and whether they had delayed their intended April 1 premium hike by 12 months.

Only HBF received more passes than fails, resulting from its decision to delay the price rise until April 2021.

Mr Price said the big names of Medibank and Bupa were being “shown up” by smaller and not-for-profit providers who are choosing to put the interests of their communities first.

“These companies are saving massive amounts of money while people are unable to use many health services – companies increasing prices are simply taking advantage of the situation,” Mr Price said.

Choice’s assessment comes as the private health insurance sector battles a “death spiral” fuelled by Australia’s ageing population and an emerging trend among younger people to skip private cover.

Insurers made $1b in savings during national lockdown

Earlier this month, News Corp revealed private health insurers effectively pocketed $1 billion in the six weeks over March and April due to a nationwide ban on elective surgeries and “extras” appointments, including dentist visits.

CEO of peak industry body Private Healthcare Australia (PHA) Rachel David said of those savings, $500 million had been returned through postponed premium hikes, new hardship programs and offering certain services – including psychology and physiotherapy – via telehealth.

But she said funds could provide more cash back depending on what’s revealed in the financial regulator APRA’s claims data, released in the next few months.

“Health funds are now using the remaining savings to fund the backlog of elective surgery,” Dr David said in a statement.

“Members who needed joint replacements, cataracts and endometriosis surgery still do post-COVID [and] dental and allied health appointments have now returned to normal levels.”

PHA said more than 100,000 private health insurance members had made claims under their provider’s hardship policies through the crisis.

Providers hit out at Choice’s claims

Medibank CEO Craig Drummond fiercely disputed his firm’s fail grade and accused the consumer group of misrepresenting its work in the name of a “publicity stunt”.

He said customers who accessed Medibank’s hardship policies received roughly $800 discounts on their premiums as part of its $180 million coronavirus support package, while the provider also reassigned hundreds of staff to help the national pandemic response.

“Choice is conveniently ignoring the facts and confusing consumers at a time of great uncertainty – this is just a publicity stunt from them,” Mr Drummond said.

A Medibank spokesperson later told The New Daily the provider has also rolled over unused extras for subsidiary ahm, and has checked in with nearly a third of 30,000 customers who have suspended their policies.

Bupa managing director Emily Amos also slammed Choice’s “irresponsible claims”, suggesting the scorecard was an act of “misinformation”.

“At a time when the health and finances of everyday Australians are being challenged, we are extremely disappointed that Choice would seek to mislead consumers,” Ms Amos said.

“We have provided more than $184 million in financial assistance and savings direct to customers and there have been no ‘super profits’ as claimed.”

The New Daily contacted nib and HCF for comment, but the providers’ spokespeople did not respond before deadline.