Bupa is 'taking the Mickey' angry patients tell inquiry

Insurer comes under attack for its premium costs and lack of care during probe into private health
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The Independent Online

Bupa patients have launched a series of astonishing attacks on the medical insurer during a Competition Commission probe into the £5bn private healthcare industry.

The investigation is looking into whether the apparantly overwhelming dominance of just five private-sector hospital operators – General Healthcare Group, Nuffield Health Hospitals, Ramsay Health Care UK, Spire Healthcare and HCA – distorts competition.

Bupa has supported the inquiry, as it believes the cost of private healthcare has been soaring because of a lack of competition, meaning its customers are tempted to switch to the NHS. However, this has not stopped Bupa itself from being the target of withering criticisms from policyholders who have submitted evidence to the investigation.

The hard-hitting attacks received by the commission included: "Bupa is busy moving the goalposts to avoid honouring their terms"; that the company's practices effectively deny "an option of choice of medical consultant"; and that "Bupa now has a policy of only using surgeons who will operate at the least cost to themselves".

One Bupa customer claimed that the firm, which employs 52,000 people around the world, refused to pay the full fee for a preferred, accredited consultant or surgeon for a hip replacement. The critic alleged: "On investigation I find that Bupa although increasing my subscription year on year have found it necessary to reduce the fee paid to consultants which was set in 1993. This therefore requires me to make up the difference adding at least 5 per cent to my subscription."

Another policyholder complained about the lack of assistance given to them following a foot operation. The complaint read: "I am… pleased to say that the infection has gone and my foot is healing really well. However, I am really annoyed and upset with Bupa and would like to formally complain about their attitude to my operation and aftercare treatment."

The commission launched its investigation last year and these are just the latest complaints against Bupa in the evidence from customers. Another policyholder last July wrote: "This year, without any explanation, my monthly premium has jumped 20 per cent from £185 to £225.31. How can this be anything other than 'taking the Mickey'."

In Bupa's annual results presentation for 2012, in which it announced £8.4bn of worldwide revenue, its chief executive Stuart Fletcher admitted that changes the company was making to tackle claims inflation and fees in the UK were "not always popular". However, he insisted that they were necessary so that British customers could get affordable, high-quality private healthcare.

On the inquiry, Mr Fletcher said: "There are no easy solutions, but a lack of competition between hospitals and information on quality of care is pushing up the cost of insurance premiums, which continue to rise at unsustainable levels putting the future of the private healthcare sector at risk."

Bupa told The Independent on Sunday that a recent survey, it commissioned, found that 87 per cent of its members expected the company to pursue value for money on their behalf.

Dr Damian Marmion, the managing director of Bupa Health Funding, said: "There is a low level of complaints about health insurance, compared to other types of insurance. In the second half of 2012, less than 0.2 per cent of Bupa's 2.3 million customers complained to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

"We are working hard to tackle hospital and consultant costs and we are calling on the Competition Commission to drive changes in the provision of private healthcare to deliver better value for our health insurance customers."

Bupa was not the only insurer criticised in the evidence to the Commission. An Aviva customer was angry about premium increases and a Pru Health policyholder complained that the costs of a routine prostate operation were allegedly not properly outlined to him.

The inquiry, which is chaired by former National Power finance director Roger Witcomb, is due to publish its initial findings in June.