Bupa pulls out of every Northern Ireland NHS hospital
One of the UK's biggest private health insurance companies has withdrawn from all NHS hospitals in Northern Ireland, it can be revealed today.
Northern Ireland people paying Bupa upwards of £3,500 a year for cover may now have to travel outside the province even for routine operations, such as hip and knee replacements.
Last month it was revealed that Bupa stopped sending patients to the Belfast Health Trust in April this year as the trust did not have the medical negligence cover required.
However, it has now emerged that Bupa is not sending any patients to any of Northern Ireland's NHS hospitals. The health insurance company said it stopped referring patients to the remaining four trusts as they did not offer the level of service wanted by its customers.
James Sherwood, Bupa's director of health and benefits management, said: "The vast majority of our customers in Northern Ireland have always chosen to receive treatment at private facilities, so very few were using any of the NHS trust hospitals."
As a result of the situation, any Bupa customer who may require an intensive care bed after surgery will no longer be able to have their procedure done here, as none of the private hospitals have an ICU.
This means anyone having routine cardiac surgery, such as cardiac catheterisation, will have to travel to England for the diagnostic procedure.
Scans to grade cancer are no longer available to patients living in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, Bupa customers who are deemed to be obese cannot have any operations here, as they are more likely to suffer complications as a result of having a general anaesthetic.
It is a devastating blow for Bupa customers, coming at a time when hospital waiting times are spiralling out of control and an increasing number of people are using private health insurance to pay for procedures, such as hip and knee replacements.
NHS waiting times for these procedures can be as long as five years from the time a patient goes to their GP and finally goes under the knife.
At the same time, official statistics released last month revealed the startling number of people in Northern Ireland who are overweight or obese.
According to statistics from the Department of Health, 36% of people here are now classed as obese - which increases the likelihood of suffering from joint conditions that will require surgery.
Bupa patients classed as obese by private hospitals here will now have to lose weight or travel to England for such operations.
It is understood that all five health trusts continue to treat patients using other private health insurance companies.
Private healthcare companies such as Bupa only pay for treatments if customers attend approved hospitals and see approved consultants.
In order to be approved, a hospital must fulfil a number of requirements, including meeting hygiene standards and having indemnity insurance in place.
They normally ask clients to choose from a list of approved doctors and hospitals ahead of any treatment being carried out.
Speaking last month, Bupa said the decision to withdraw approval from the Belfast Trust was a temporary measure and it was working to ensure the necessary medical negligence insurance - believed to be in the region of £20m - was put in place once more.
However, it is now six months since approval was removed and the trust has not said whether it intends to acquire the necessary cover.
In the meantime Bupa said it paid the travel costs of any people travelling to England for surgery.
However, it is not known whether it covers additional costs, such as accommodation or travel costs of a family member to accompany a patient during their treatment.