“Health insurance ‘worthless if patients can’t access treatment’.”

FIPO latest in The Times – Monday 13th July 2020

FIPO’s Chairman, Mr Richard Packard, spoke recently with Mr Andrew Ellson about the underutilisation of beds during this COVID-19 pandemic. Please read further for the full article.


Medical insurance risks becoming worthless because of the difficulties policyholders face getting treatment since the NHS took over the running of private hospitals, a consultants group has warned.

The Federation of Independent Practitioners says the transfer of more than 8,000 private hospital beds to the public sector in March to help to tackle the coronavirus pandemic risks backfiring if the four million people who have private cover turn to the health service for treatment, burdening taxpayers and adding to waiting lists.

Billing data suggests that private consultancy is operating at less than half of normal capacity, forcing private patients to wait for treatments.

Richard Packard, chairman of the federation, said that some private facilities were sitting idle because of the failure of NHS and hospital managers to allow private consultants to use rooms and operating theatres when the health service was not.

“Private medical insurers are sleepwalking,” he said. “They don’t seem to realise there is an existential problem because the mass of people will stop wanting to pay for private cover if they don’t get what they are paying for.”

“There has been some co-operation between the NHS and the private sector but there is a very mixed picture across England which seems to depend not on the facilities themselves but the people charged with organising their use. Where there are good managers things seem to be working better than where they are not.”

In May The Times revealed that most private hospitals were either empty or hosting only a trickle of NHS patients since being transferred to the public sector because even at the peak of the pandemic, NHS intensive care wards were not overwhelmed. Some private hospitals continue to be used to treat virus-free NHS patients, such as those needing cancer treatment, but many remain well below full capacity, according to the federation.

Mr Packard said the situation had improved since May but added: “The next two months are critical. We will then have a much better idea how efficiently the NHS is using its own and private facilities. If they are being used efficiently there may be more space for private medicine to be done as well.”

Data from Healthcode, which processes invoices for private hospitals and consultants, shows billing volumes were down 56 per cent in June compared with the same period last year.

Private medical insurers acknowledge that some policyholders may experience delays if they need in-patient care but argue that their cover offers significantly more than just access to private hospitals. Many are offering private GP and consultant appointments by telephone or online plus physiotherapy exercise sessions via Zoom.

Stuart Scullion, of the Association of Medical Insurers and Intermediaries, said insurers had also enhanced cash benefits for policyholders treated in the NHS. “Surgical procedures at independent private hospitals are not the absolute pinnacle of plans, it is just one of the benefits. We have to recognise that in these exceptional circumstances some time frames will slip,” he said. He warned policyholders with existing conditions to think carefully before cancelling their plans.

A spokeswoman for the Independent Healthcare Providers Network said it had been the right decision to help the NHS, but that private patients now “shouldn’t hesitate in coming forward and accessing the care they need”. Reduced patient numbers reflected the lockdown and social-distancing measures that cut procedures, she said.


The time to return to practice and work together is ever more pressing with the mounting waiting lists of patients who have been prevented from receiving care during this COVID-19 lockdown. The UK is said to be in a ‘de-escalating phase’ with the number of new cases having fallen and so it is during this period that private practice should be opened more widely to receive non-urgent cases and admit care to patients.

This will not only re-open access to care for patients, but also encourage private consultants back to work and restart practice. You may read more on this here in the CEO of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN), Mr David Hare, feature address in the IPT.


However, a recent survey conducted by the London Consultants’ Association (you may read here) showed that many consultants fear they will not recover from the lockdown and are considering retiring from practice altogether, particularly as there seemed to be a lack of support for individual consultants from the sector.

Some consultants have endeavoured to resume work in some form via virtual consultations in order to regain financial stability and most importantly, to administer care to their patients. Yet this has its challenges and is receiving reimbursement struggles from insurers pressuring consultants to accept 50% fee cuts (read article here); it cannot be sustainable going forward.

You may read more on this from FIPO’s Vice Chairman, Ian McDermott here.