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Don't bust a gut for private health cover

PRIVATE medical insurance is a luxury, and the older you get, the more difficult it is to pay for it. A relatively youthful 40-year- old pays pounds 800 to pounds 1,000 a year for a top-of-the-range medical policy.

Even so, you might imagine the current state of the NHS would attract customers to private medicine. But in fact a lot of the cover sold to individuals is "cannibalism" - insurers are stealing each other's customers rather than attracting first-time buyers.

There seems to be plenty of scope to win disaffected punters. WPA commissioned a survey asking its competitors' customers to rate the service. In a sector where you might imagine good service is paramount, only 64 per cent of Norwich Union customers and 65 per cent of Bupa's said they would recommend their insurer to someone else. (WPA scored a much higher 84 per cent rating.) Medical insurance also suffers from baffling small print. There is no standard set of definitions of illness, for example, and no core list of what a medical policy must include as a bare minimum. It's almost impossible to compare like with like when you shop around. This at least should change. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is preparing to issue guidelines for all sorts of health insurance to set out exactly how a policy should be presented.

Sales of health insurance are unregulated, meaning that a salesman who sells you a policy does not have to pass any exams. You have no official comeback if you are sold something unsuitable, although there are ombudsman schemes. The insurance industry is prom-ising tighter self-regulation, but the OFT report may recommend stronger action, such as asking the new Financial Services Authority to oversee the sector.

If you are not one of the 3 million people with a policy, you can still do something positive to safeguard your entitlement to good-quality health care: find a good doctor's practice and save a lot of money.