Andrew Holt talks to medical intermediaries' spokesman Stephen Walker about his plans to raise the profile of private healthcare

If you haven't heard of the Association of Medical Insurance Intermediaries (AMII) you are not alone. Since its inception in 1998 the organisation has hardly lit up the world of medical insurance. But Stephen Walker, the AMII's chairman, is planning to change this. He is determined to put the work of the AMII on the insurance map.

"We are currently organising an AMII nation-wide public relations campaign to promote the benefits of private medical insurance (PMI) and of using an AMII member when seeking advice on PMI," says Walker.

This year's AMII conference is the centrepiece of the AMII's publicity push. It aims to attract 300 delegates, which is double the 150 who attended last year. It will be held in mid-June and is not just open to AMII members.

"This is attractive to all ranges of people and companies involved in PMI helping everyone to become more informed and raise enthusiasm. All the major players and product providers will be there," says Walker.

"The objective is to bring everyone under one roof. It is becoming more and more credible," he says.

It is this credibility that the AMII and Walker so desire. To achieve this, the conference's central focus will be regulation issues.

"We will look to move forward on regulation and look to have a part to play in future developments and have an overall input," says Walker.

On the issue of regulation, Walker has a rather ambiguous approach, which ultimately reveals his distaste for the whole exercise.

"It has improved standards and, in some respects, it has been good and established a stronger industry," he says on a positive note.

"But it has also been too draconian, too bureaucratic and is anti-competitive," he says revealing his true position.

"For example, if you compare the old Gisc's remit and guidebook, that totalled 43 pages. The FSA's Treating Customers Fairly document - just one initiative from the FSA - amounts to 67 pages on its own."

Many within the industry share this view. FSA regulation is becoming a real struggle for smaller medical intermediaries, according to Walker.

"They have had to absorb quite significant extra costs," he says.

But there are other challenges facing private health care. PMI is in a period of huge change as the government looks to more privatised options but fails to have the power of its convictions to fully follow through with this. Labour's idealistic relationship with the NHS is behind this obfuscation.

Walker believes politicians fail to acknowledge that the private health sector supports the NHS and enables it to treat more people.

"For every person treated in the private sector, pressure is eased on the NHS, freeing up beds and reducing waiting lists to see a consultant.

"The private sector also provides beds for NHS patients when the public sector backlog is acute, not the other way around. These are both arguments often not deemed politically correct to discuss.

Real choice

"No one disputes that the NHS is excellent for emergency and life-threatening situations. But the private sector provides real choice for elective surgery, reducing queues for treatment, not jumping them, and allowing patients in both sectors to get on with their lives and back to work much faster."

It would have been Walker's choice for the Conservative Party to have won the last election and implemented its Patients' Choice policy to provide private treatment, which would have seen huge benefits for the PMI sector.

Under this initiative, a patient would have been able to take 50% of the NHS cost of their required treatment and use it to help fund private treatment.

Historically, it has been the perceived cost of medical insurance which has put many off from using PMI. "Many hard working people like the idea of private treatment but have been have put off by the cost. But products are now more competitively priced than ever before," says Walker.

Yet there is still a perception among much of the public that they do not wish to pay for PMI, a view that Walker says is lopsided.

"People already pay for health insurance through taxes and what they get for their money is very poor indeed. Yet people still keep saying, pour more money into the NHS."

This is not just about PMI, however, but the public's oft-cited negative perception of insurance as a whole.

"We do have a poor image as an industry. We are seen as rip-off merchants. Yet the industry pays out pounds 55m a day in claims, so I think our image is not justified and something we have to overcome."

He says the AMII has an important role to play in educating consumers.

"People who use private treatment love it. But we need to educate those who don't of its benefits. And in the end we have to say the cost of PMI reflects the healthcare involved."

It is safe to say that the message is currently not getting through.

The AMII currently has more than 100 members, from sole traders to large companies, but ensures the smaller end of the market gets a voice.

"We try to speak with one voice and create relationships with insurers and get them around a table," Walker says.

Walker is keen to stress that the association is constantly working behind the scenes to strengthen the industry for the benefit of its members, the industry and the public.

"We have built a good reputation and an excellent relationship with the FSA and developed strong communication channels with the regulator."

The AMII has an input into the ABI, with regular quarterly meetings on PMI and related matters.

Training sessions

On a more practical front, the AMII has been organising and funding compliance and product training sessions for its members.

It has introduced a regular AMII newsletter to keep members informed of recent developments within the industry and provide an open forum for members to air their views.

It has also been involved with a number of insurers regarding product development and back room systems.

"We have had input into a significant number of the new products that have been introduced over the past two years, providing more choice at more affordable premiums," says Walker.

But his big theme is, without a doubt, how PMI can benefit UK plc.

"Health insurance has a major role to play in the future of this country."

Time will tell if anyone in a position of authority is listening.