There are many thousands of people across the country who either pay monthly or annually for a range of services – from trains to schools to health clubs and health insurance – who have been left wondering if they are getting what they have paid for and if they should be looking for something back.
With a wide-ranging lockdown in place for more than two weeks now, and many services unable to operate as normal for well in excess of a month, there are question marks hanging over what people are entitled to and what they should be expecting to happen in the days ahead.
These questions are likely to multiply over the course of this month as the private health system in the Republic effectively merges with the public one. The Government is taking over the facilities of 19 private hospitals around the country as part of its plan for dealing with Covid-19 .
That has left many of those who are paying thousands of euro each year in private health insurance fees wondering what they are paying for. There will continue to be some elements of the private healthcare system operating in the coming days, such as maternity and psychiatric care, but for the months ahead the scale of what is on offer in the private health market will be dramatically reduced for the greater good.
The average cost of a health insurance policy in Ireland is around €1,800, which equates to €150 a month. If the current crisis lasts three months can the more than 2 million people who have private cover expect to get €450 back from their insurer?
The short answer is probably not.
Apart from anything else, the total cost of a refund of that scale paid out in one fell swoop would be close to €1 billion, and would most likely make the three providers insolvent. But that is not to say customers should not expect something back.
The companies will be making substantial savings in the next three months as there will be a dramatic reduction in the level of claims being made. That gives the three companies – VHI, Laya Healthcare and Irish Life Health – a pretty significant war chest.
They will, however, be mindful that while the numbers seeking payouts will be reduced until the summer at least, they will inevitably spike as the system starts to return to normal and deferred procedures take place.
A person who can’t have their hip replacement operation in the private system in May will not be miraculously cured, and will need to have it later in the year.
At a recent meeting between the three health insurers and officials from the Department of Health, the Health Insurance Authority, and the Central Bank – as the financial regulator – there was an across-the-board willingness to introduce measures to support customers suffering financial hardship as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The companies have also indicated they will be willing to offer discounts to their broader customer base in the weeks ahead, although the specifics are as yet unknown.
The acting head of VHI, Declan Moran, has written to customers to say that in the past when it has had a reduction in claims it has returned money to customers. "We now give you a commitment that we will do that again."
He also said the company was “developing a package of financial supports for our customers who need help at this time”.
A spokeswoman told The Irish Times that the company would “not be found wanting” in returning money to policy holders.
The managing director of Laya Healthcare, Donal Clancy, has written to the company's 600,000 customers committing to helping them financially in the coming months.
A spokeswoman said the company “plans to introduce measures of financial support for our members on private healthcare schemes in response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis”.
“We still have critical details around our claims costs we need to work out carefully which will determine the breadth and depth of what we can offer back to our members by way of a Covid-19 financial payment, which we are committed to giving,” she said.
“We are continuing to work with key industry groups, including the Department of Health, the HIA and the HSE, to get this clarity, and fully understand the implications of recent changes in our hospitals for our members.”
She said there was “still significant value in maintaining health cover during Covid-19”.
“Our members are still getting sick with non-Covid-19-related illnesses and injuries. Public hospitals – including acute hospitals, maternity hospitals, children’s hospitals and specialist mental health hospitals – continue to treat patients privately for non-Covid-19-related illnesses, and we are continuing to pay those claims as we normally would”.
In a letter to customers, the chief executive of Irish Life Health, Jim Dowdall, promised that people would be "treated fairly" as a result of a significant reduction in the level of healthcare available through the private system.
He said the company would see a reduction of its overall claims for private treatments in the weeks and months ahead, and said it was engaging with the Department of Health and other parties “to understand the likely impact of the changes and to discuss initiatives to support customers.
For many Irish parents, the cost of health insurance is a fraction of the cost of sending their children to fee paying schools. The most expensive schools are charging up to €8,600 a year for day pupils and in excess of €20,000 a year for boarding.
With all schools in the State closed for over a month, parents have started to wonder what they have been paying for in recent weeks and what they might get back. Not, however, as many as you might think. According to Mark Ronan, the principal of the King's Hospital boarding school in Dublin, a very small percentage of parents have been in touch asking about fees.
The school has been proactive, and has written to parents saying fees paid for boarding facilities would be addressed in the weeks ahead.
“We recognise this as an issue,” Ronan said. “What we are waiting for is official guidance from the Government as to how long schools are likely to be closed before we can take any further steps.”
He said it would be difficult to know what those steps should be until there was more clarity on the horizon.
As with the vast majority of schools across the State, private schools are doing what they can to educate children remotely, with teachers setting assignments and running classes online, so the return of fees for students who attend such schools seems unlikely. The parents of children in boarding schools may, however, be in line for refunds in the weeks ahead.
Car insurance is another area where people have questions. With only essential travel now allowed, and the roads across the State largely empty of traffic, the likelihood that many motorists will be involved in crashes that will require claims has dropped dramatically. Road traffic is a fraction of its previous levels.
The motor insurance industry appears unmoved by the situation, and does not appear to be taking any steps to pass any savings it will make in the weeks ahead back to consumers.
Insurance Ireland, the lobby group that represents the sector, points out that insurance covers other things outside of driving, including fire and theft.
“Even if your driving is less frequent, the risk of being involved in a crash is still there,” a spokeswoman says, adding that the only possible benefit motorists could expect to see despite the likely fall in claims this spring would be through the no-claims discount system.
Another form of travel which many people will have paid in advance for is on the country's train, tram and rail services. Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny said it was looking to see what it could do for impacted customers.
He said the company was working alongside the National Transport Authority "and other transport operators to come up with a suitable solution for customers who are not currently travelling, and expect to be able to advise customers on this in the coming days – we are advising customers to retain their current annual/monthly tickets pending this advice".
All gyms and sports clubs across the State have also been forced to close. In the early stages of the crisis many gyms looked at ways they could keep their businesses open while their doors were closed through the use of online videos and free access to portable gym equipment, which members were allowed to bring to their own homes.
Some were slow to confirm that they would not be taking direct debits from customers in April. However all the big chains quickly fell into line, with Ben Dunne, David Lloyd and Westwood all confirming that membership fees would be suspended until they were in a position to reopen.