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People stand by private insurers

THOUGH private health insurers say the state has been treating them harshly with its health insurance policies, clients have remained loyal to them. The private insurance business has not recorded any major drops to the number of policy holders.

THOUGH private health insurers say the state has been treating them harshly with its health insurance policies, clients have remained loyal to them. The private insurance business has not recorded any major drops to the number of policy holders.

Slovaks tended to switch between private health insurance companies over the past year, rather than switching to state insurers, the health care market authority said.

The current legislation allows clients to switch their health insurer once a year after they file an application by September 30. They move to the new insurer as of the following January.

The largest insurer, the state-run Všeobecná Zdravotná Poistovňa (VšZP), lost 13,603 clients by the September 30 deadline. But for an insurer with more than 2.9 million clients, the drop has not brought any significant change.

The other public insurer, Spoločná Zdravotná Poisťovňa (SZP), lost 7,747 policyholders. It will insure 590,936 clients starting in the new year.

Of the private insurers, Union suffered the biggest drop, losing one-quarter of its clients. It lost 120,082 clients and kept 325,976 clients. At the other end, Dôvera had the most growth, gaining 83,892 clients. As of January, it will have 842,700 clients.

Zdravotná Poisťovňa Apollo gained 1,749 new policyholders, bringing its total to 430,761 clients in 2008. The fourth private insurer, Európska Zdravotná Poisťovňa, gained 55,791 clients, which will double its clientele to 124,658 as of next year.

VšZP maintained its top position with a market share of 57 percent. The private Dôvera, with its 16-percent market share, comes second, followed by SZP, with an 11-percent market share.

Last year, 700,000 clients wanted to change their insurance company. This year the number stood at 230,000 people.

Richard Demovič, the chairman of the Health Care Supervision Office, said no major changes have shaken the health insurance market. The biggest surprise was the number of people leaving Union, he said.

"It is a shocking number," Demovič said. "It is more than a 25-percent drop.

"Union will certainly examine what caused this development. Based on our information, Union has failed to secure the accessibility [of health care] for its clients."

Some physicians and specialists refused to sign contracts with the insurer, said Demovič, and some rural clients had to travel longer distances to get treatment.

"Based on our information, Union offered fair conditions for the physicians, but it still failed to secure the network of health care providers it promised," he added.

Most of the policyholders who left Union joined Dôvera. Union, which is owned by the Dutch insurer and financial group Eureko B.V., has already filed a complaint against Dôvera and Európska Zdravotná Poisťovňa for what it calls a violation of advertising ethics.

"Union based its complaint on reports from its clients who switched health insurers based on misleading information," Union spokeswoman Nina Zelníková told The Slovak Spectator. "The policyholders (who left) told us that they wanted to remain our clients, however it is not in our authority to decide on such matters. It was our duty to forward their complaints to the Health Care Supervision Office."

Dôvera said it has requested information about Union's complaint from the Health Care Supervision Office, but the office said it is still checking the relevance of the complaint, Horníková said.

"We resolutely reject any accusations because we are not aware of any wrongdoing," Zuzana Horníková of Dôvera told The Slovak Spectator. "We act responsibly, and during the year we installed concrete organisational steps to make sure applications to our health insurer were filed in line with the law."

Dôvera said that most of the clients it picked up were former clients who had left the insurer for Union, then came back.

"We explain the increase of the number of clients by the fact that we persuaded people that we are able to provide them with quality health care and offer above-standard services and products," Horníková said.

Union had expected such a drop in the number of clients, mostly from clients who tend to switch health insurers without comparing the insurers' offers, Zelníková said.

An extensive campaign to draw new clients has not been a priority for Union this year, Zelníková said. Union mostly focused on building its network of health care providers and developing its services and products.

"The departure of some of the clients will in no way influence the company's strategy and its stable position on the health insurance market," Zelníková said.

Quick switch complaints

Branislav Juhás, head of health insurance supervision at the Health Care Supervision Office, said most of the complaints the office has handled this year dealt with clients' requests to halt their application to switch insurers.

Most of them objected to being asked to hastily sign applications to join another insurer on the street, later realising they were happy with their current insurer.

Clients also complained of misleading information about the possibility that a single public insurer was on its way, Juhás said. The third most common complaint was misleading information from companies about the extra advantages they offer compared to the client's current insurer.

The government recently revised the health insurance act to ban private health insurers from paying out dividends to their shareholders. Instead, any profits they make will have to be fed back into the health care system.

Private insurers called the law hostile to the investments of their major shareholders and said they plan to take Slovakia to international courts.

While the Health Ministry believes the revision will help the health insurance market, clients and health care providers, the health insurers have said that it will make their life much tougher.

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