Kids' scrapes

Is it worth investing in health insurance for your children? Dave Firebrook investigates

Every year 300,000 children visit hospital casualty departments as a result of an accident at school. Of these, some 10,000 will suffer permanent disability, says the Association of British Insurers. Schools usually have no special insurance cover that will pay out after accidents of this sort. The parents' only recourse would be to sue the school on the grounds of negligence - failure to maintain gym equipment, for instance. If the case is proved, payment will be made under the school's public liability insurance.

If parents want some kind of financial protection in the event of their child's being injured they will have to take out personal accident cover. This is that rather gruesome brand of insurance which puts a price on a long list of bodily parts: pounds 5,000 for a finger, pounds 50,000 for an eye, and so on. Personal accident cover could be arranged through your school's parent-teacher association (PTA) in which case you might get a group discount, or directly with the insurer. The school or the local education office should be able to get details of policies available.

Personal accident insurance can also be provided as an add-on to other types of policy, such as those covering medical expenses. Prime Health offers up to pounds 50,000 of this cover for pounds 4 a month, when the personal accident policy is linked to one of its main medical products. In addition to the finger and eye tariffs mentioned above, the policy will pay pounds 35,000 "for complete and irrecoverable loss of hearing in both ears" down to pounds 2,500 for the "loss by physical severance" of any toe other than the big toe.

In the event of a major accident at school, the NHS should provide prompt emergency treatment. For non-emergency procedures children are as likely as anyone else to fall victim to waiting lists, and the cost of private treatment for common childhood operations can be prohibitive - so there is certainly a case for including the children in your medical expenses policy.

Removal of tonsils and adenoids, including two nights' stay in hospital and all professional fees, would be at least pounds 1,600 in the private sector. .

A medical insurance plan provided as a benefit by the employer of one of the parents will usually cover the whole family. There may also be special family rates for policies taken out individually.

Most companies charge separately for each individual covered. For example, Norwich Union charges pounds 12.83 a month for each child up to the age of 17 in areas outside London under its Select Care plan. The monthly cost for a family with two children aged 12 and 10, where both parents were aged 45, would be pounds 111.80. If there were four children in the family, the cost would be pounds 137.46.

The mid-range policy from Prime Health, Primecare Plus, would cost pounds 100.44 for the same family on hospital scale C whatever the number of children - a pricing advantage worth seeking out for those blessed with more than the standard 2.4 offspring. Prime Health says it is looking at a possible children-only medical plan for launch later this year.

Apart from pricing policy, there are a few points worth checking in medical policies for the family with children:

l Does the policy give automatic cover for a newborn child? Most do so free of charge, though premiums will increase from the next policy anniversary.

l Does the policy give any cover for a parent staying overnight in hospital to accompany a sick child? Cheaper policies may not cover this.

l To what age does cover continue? Policies vary, with the grey area coinciding with the age at which children go to college. Norwich Union's premiums increase substantially from age 18. Prime Health will continue cover until the child is 21 or married.

l What is the cover for out-patient and day-care treatment? Again, cheaper policies may offer little or no cover in these areas, though many procedures for children, such as removing ear grommets, are done nowadays without an overnight hospital stay.

If waiting lists are a major reason for taking out medical expenses cover, the same does not apply to dental care. Since children receive dental care free under the NHS, is there a case for including them in your own dental payment plan?

Perhaps not surprisingly, companies offering dental plans think that there is. They argue that having a dental plan for the children helps to promote regular dental care and preventive treatment, which is vital from an early age. More important, they suggest that the quality of care under the NHS may be poorer than it is when paid for privately, with hard- pressed NHS dentists spending only a few minutes on an examination - whereas a dentist with a payment plan may be able to cost in a longer consultation.

Dentists offering payment plans will normally still treat your children free under the NHS (though they may increasingly refuse other NHS-exempt categories, such as low-income patients), and there are rumours that the Government intends to offer significant extra funding for children's dentistry in a package to be launched later this yearn

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