The English patient and the rise of PMI plans

Distrustful of the NHS, nearly six million people now have private medical cover. Emma Lunn shows what to look for in a policy

It may have traditionally been a benefit for employees in large companies, but private medical insurance (PMI) is starting to hit the mainstream.

With this type of policy, designed to pay for the cost of treatment if you're injured or fall ill, you can go private and are likely to be seen and treated much quicker than you would be on the National Health Service. PMI plans now cover 5.9 million British adults and children.

Nick Starling, director at the Association of British Insurers, says PMI offers people a wide choice of treatment and other services for a wide range of medical conditions and injuries. "It also takes pressure off the NHS, so by buying PMI, people are in effect reducing the burden on Britain's hard-pressed health service," he adds.

As with any insurance policy, you pay a monthly or annual premium for PMI. The treatments covered will vary depending on the type of plan. There are hundreds of policies available so shopping around is crucial.

Many people enjoy free medical insurance as an employee benefit, but if they change jobs or are made redundant, they will be left to arrange their own cover and can be surprised by the cost even if they're offered a discount from their previous insurer.

David Doulton, director of price-comparison website Fair Investment, says consumers looking to take out PMI are in the strongest position they have been for a long time. "Not only are there several new policies on the market, but as people grow increasingly frustrated with the NHS, providers are going to be falling over themselves to offer the most comprehensive policies," he explains.

"However, PMI is not a price-driven market, so it's important to ensure you are getting the best level of cover from the right provider. We advise anyone considering taking out PMI to check the finer details rather than just opting for the cheapest package."

Policy prices can vary between providers and also between different products offered by the same pro- vider. Comparing different plans can be quite difficult. A single 35-year-old male non-smoker could get cover for just £13.14 a month from Freedom Insurance on its Gold In-Patient policy. However, this would not cover certain out-patient appointments including radiotherapy and physiotherapy which are features of Platinum, the next plan up on Freedom's list.

Alternatively, General & Medical's Equs First Choice policy costs more at £22.10 a month but covers a range of out-patient, as well as in-patient, procedures. However, Freedom gives policyholders a wider range of hospitals to choose from than General & Medical.

As people age, they are far more likely to claim on a medical policy, so not surprisingly, premiums soar once you hit 50.

A 55-year-old woman could expect to pay £35 upwards for a policy from Freedom or General & Medical the cheapest providers for her circumstances, according to price-comparison service

If you are married or have children, a family policy will probably work out better value than individual policies.

Whichever PMI policy you choose, it is likely to have a number of exclusions. Common among these are infertility treatment, cosmetic surgery, treatment for addictive conditions such as alcoholism or drug abuse, psychiatric illness and procedures related to HIV and Aids.