The real cost of private healthcare as NHS waiting lists lengthen

NHS strain is pushing more people to pay for private healthcare. But how high could your bill be?

Rebecca Goodman
Wednesday 09 March 2022 07:00 GMT
<p>The knock-on effects from the pandemic are far from over, as waiting lists for scheduled treatments continue to stress the system</p>

The knock-on effects from the pandemic are far from over, as waiting lists for scheduled treatments continue to stress the system

We know the NHS has a massive battle on its hands. Sixteen million people struggled to access NHS care during the pandemic, and the knock-on effects are far from over, as waiting lists for scheduled treatments continue to stress the system.

More than one in 10 of those awaiting NHS care during the Covid crisis turned to private treatment instead.

In fact, since the 1970s, the UK has seen the fastest rise in people paying for private healthcare of all the G7 countries, according to the annual State of Health and Care report for 2022 from think tank the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research).

This figure should ring alarm bells for the government, as it shows people are not currently receiving the treatment they deserve or expect from the NHS, the authors said.

People should get treatment within 18 weeks of being referred by their GP, as stated in the NHS constitution, yet currently waiting lists stand at more than 6 million, with some patients waiting a year or more for care.

This is leaving many with the unwelcome decision of delaying much-needed treatment or paying for private healthcare.

However, many people are excluded from private treatment altogether because they can’t afford it – a problem only worsened by the current cost of living crisis.

For the report, 3,466 adults were asked about the NHS, 17 per cent of whom said they would choose private treatment if the alternative was a waiting list of 18 weeks or longer, from referral to treatment starting, on the NHS.

A further 59 per cent said they couldn’t afford to go private, while 10 per cent rejected private healthcare on principle.

The authors of the report say that the pressure on our healthcare system is undermining the foundations and the spirit of the NHS, and that it risks an unequal, two-tier system emerging, where “a mediocre standard is available for everyone, but the best is only available to those who can and are willing to pay”.

The decision to choose private healthcare will depend on many factors. The kind of treatment needed, the current delays in NHS care, the costs involved, and the patient’s own feelings towards private care.

Within the scope of private treatment, there are also lots of options to choose from. It doesn’t cover everything, though; emergency treatment, for example, is still mostly carried out by the NHS.

Costs vary depending on the treatment and where you are having it done. As an example, a full knee replacement costs on average £11,814, a hysterectomy is £6,545, cataract surgery will set you back £2,417, and an MRI scan costs around £395, according to figures from Private Healthcare UK.

You can pay for one-off healthcare, such as an operation, upfront. If you have the money to do this, it’s usually best to pay from your income or savings.

To cover the costs if you don’t have enough in savings, you could also take out a loan, although if choosing this route you will need to factor in interest payments.

Some treatments can also be paid for with a credit card. Again, however, there are interest payments to consider. If you’re unable to meet the repayment costs of any kind of credit, it could damage your credit score and you could be penalised with extra fees.

Private medical insurance can cover the cost of some operations and treatment. There are lots of companies to choose from, and with most you’ll choose the level of cover you want and then pay a monthly premium.

The amount you pay will be based on the cover included, alongside factors such as your health and lifestyle. The average price is around £1,500 a year or £125 a month, according to Unbiased.

Nina Brown, health propositions lead at Aviva UK Health, said insurers had seen a rise in sales of private health cover from individuals and businesses in the past year.

As one of the leading health insurers in the UK, it has many options for those thinking about private health insurance.

With one of its comprehensive packages, “cover is provided for acute conditions, cancer diagnosis, treatment and aftercare, outpatient cover including diagnostic tests, [and] specialist consultations and treatments, including for acute mental health conditions”, she said.

For an extra cost, dental, optical, physiotherapy or osteopathy can be added, and to keep costs down, customers can reduce the level of cover or increase their excess, which is payable when they make a claim.

Yet, like most private healthcare policies, Aviva won’t cover chronic conditions – including long Covid, anything pre-existing, or pregnancy and childbirth.

When you use a health insurance policy, you usually won’t have to pay up front, and costs are recovered from your insurer.

However, some won’t pay the full amount – just a percentage – and you will need to pay the rest yourself. There will also be an annual limit on the amount of money available.

It’s worth checking with your employer before taking out any kind of insurance, as this is often included in company benefits packages.

Samantha Cross, marketing manager for the life and health insurance broker Assured Futures, said: “There are a great variety of options with private healthcare, which can reduce your premium and make a policy more affordable, and suit your own personal circumstances.

“The best tip is to get advice and look at the variety of options available. Look for a broker with a large panel of insurers, one who can discuss hospital lists and excess periods.”

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