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Uncertainty Remains in European Insurance Markets

Posted on Jun 21, 2012 by Sergio Ulloa ()

European insurance markets are looking increasingly bleak amid news of UK health insurance premiums climbing by 10 percent, and fears of expat health insurance premiums doubling in Greece. The bad news in the Euro Zone's health insurance market comes at the same time European life insurers are nervously awaiting the outcome of the Solvency II proposal's passage through the European Parliament. The proposal, which has been ten years in the making, has been designed to ensure insurers have capital reserves proportional to the risks underwritten. The unprecedented rise in health insurance premiums, specifically in the UK, has left both insurers and their customers worried. In an effort to stop the 10 percent price increases that have been seen in the past couple of years, international health insurers have been trying to reduce costs by pinpointing where they've been going wrong. William Russell, an international insurance firm based in the UK, has pointed the finger at surgeons who it claims have radically varying surgical prices. The firm mentioned an example where a surgeon in Hong Kong requested US$42,000 to perform a knee replacement operation. According to Nichola Duncan, the company's international claims manager, "We contacted three other well-known surgeons locally and the average fee was US$24,000." In light of the hike in prices, a number of insurance firms, including William Russell have implored their customers to contact their insurer prior to treatment to ensure that the client will not have to personally foot the bill. Other reasons that have been stated for the increasing cost of premiums has been fraud, over diagnosis and unnecessary medical treatment. The bad news in the UK comes at time where British nationals living in Spain and Greece are returning home due to the huge economic problems in both Euro Zone stragglers. One of the biggest potential problems that expats are facing is the prospect of their health insurance doubling if Greece decides to leave the Euro Zone. Their worries are centered around the possibility that if a Greek exit, or Grexit , occurs, hospitals may not reduce their prices. Despite their fears, prominent insurance firms such as AXA are confident that if Greece ditches the Euro for the Drachma, hospitals will reduce their costs. Kevin Melton, AXA international's sales and marketing director admitted that "Premiums will be expensive" but "the cost of claims should be lower because hospitals services will be cheaper." However, even if hospitals cut their prices, it is very likely that premium rates will still rise, as expats with international cover would rack up claims beyond the Greek border. The economic problems in Greece are not only proving harmful to expatriates living in the country, but also to visitors holding the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). The premise of the EHIC is that an individual holding the card has access to the same amount of public health care than a citizen of the EU country the person is visiting. In the past, many have used the EHIC as their main source of travel insurance while traveling in and around Europe. Due to the immense problems that the public hospitals are having in Greece, they no longer have the resources to deal with foreigners holding an EHIC. This means that even if one has an EHIC card, they are no longer guaranteed healthcare and may end up having to pay for expensive private care out of their own pocket. With the EHIC proving to be ineffective in many cases, the need for proper travel insurance has become greater. The new ineffectiveness of the EHIC in Greece is part of a growing trend of European countries becoming increasingly cagey about other European nationals using their public health services for nothing. The first country that clamped down on this was France. In 2008, former President Nicholas Sarkozy enacted a law where by non-French non-working individuals under retirement age were made to buy private medical insurance and were no longer allowed to use France's public health system for 'free'. As more and more European countries lose money it seems that they are becoming increasingly stingy about their own healthcare systems and following suit. Soon after France enacted their laws, Spain created similar ones, and while the Greeks didn't exactly intend to cut expatriates out of their public healthcare system they too have effectively done the same. Those who support these moves argue that it was wrong that expats were getting the benefits of a system that they had not contributed to and that cards such as the EHIC were being abused. The British have now caught on to the general trend and are pressing their government to make it compulsory for foreign nationals to have health insurance to ensure that the NHS doesn't become a free treatment ticket and that Briton's have first priority. While the health and travel insurance markets ride waves of uncertainty, European life insurance firms are keeping their eyes firmly focused on the outcome of the Solvency II proposal. The proposal is intended to protect insurance companies in case of another crippling financial crisis. As the proposal progresses through the European Parliament in Brussels, German insurance companies such as Allianz and Munich Re, as well as many others, have all expressed an interest in implementing a phase-in process for Solvency II as it is claimed that 40 percent of German companies would have problems complying with the new regulations. They claim an immediate introduction of the Solvency II legislation would be detrimental as they would not have enough time to adjust to the stricter measures and a sudden hike in capital reserves. Most companies use discount rates based on asset yield to calculate technical provision, and according to Karen van Hulle, the European Commission's Head of Pension and Insurance, the phase in would allow companies to gradually move towards the risk free discount rate that Solvency II requires. Insurance Companies Mentioned William Russell British firm, William Russell, was founded in 1992 and is an international insurance provider that specializes in health, life and disability insurance. Axa AXA is a French insurance firm based in Paris, France. Ranking in as the ninth largest company in the world, AXA specializes in life, health and other forms of insurance. Allianz German company, Allianz are the world's 12th largest financial services group in the world. Formed in 1891 it specializes in insurance but also deals with other financial services.
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