HI editor David Sawers poses the questions
Most people in the street, Ken Hesketh acknowledges, won’t have heard of Benenden Healthcare Society, the mutual organisation which he has been chief executive of since 2008.
In fact, there are many people even in the world of private healthcare and health insurance – particularly brokers – who won’t have heard of it.
But before I find out why that is – it seems strange for an organisation with as many as 930,000 members – I need to find out a bit more about what Benenden actually is.
Is it an insurer? A hospital group? A cash plan provider? A trade union? The answer, it seems, is none – or all – of the above. Confused?
In fact, looking back at the history of Benenden, the answer is a bit more simple than at first it might seem.
The organisation came into existence as a hospital, founded in Kent in 1907 before the days of the NHS, for members of trade unions and friendly societies. Since then the organisation has grown to offer discretionary medical care to individuals who meet certain eligibility criteria, as well as, more recently, cash plans and over 50s life cover.
THE BENENDEN PROPOSITION
The basic proposition behind Benenden is that for a membership fee of £1.50 – soon to be £1.80 – per week, members get access to medical treatment at its own hospital in Kent and 18 private hospitals around the country. Sounds like a cheap form of private medical insurance (PMI)? In a way it is, but the key difference is that treatment is given on a ‘discretionary’ basis – in other words there is no ‘contract’ as such between the organisation and members and Benenden can decline to pay for care and treatment, for example on the grounds of cost. It also asks that members “use their judgement” and consider how urgent their case is before contacting the Society to ask it to pay for treatment.
This clearly isn’t medical insurance as most readers of this magazine know it. But while Hesketh acknowledges that there are other limitations to the cover that means it falls short of full blown PMI too, he is keen to stress that members get generous levels of cover for such a small amount of money. In fact, when it comes to consultation and diagnosis “the door is just about as wide as you can make it” he says, although it “narrows a bit” when it comes to treatment – cardiac surgery, for example, is not covered.
“If you look at the kinds of services that Benenden provides either in its hospital or funds in these other hospitals you would probably find the range of clinical care that goes on in most private hospitals,” Hesketh says.
Its own hospital in Kent – which Hesketh ran as hospital director when he first joined Benenden in 2002 – is about to benefit from significant investment and treats not just Benenden members but carries out some NHS and self-pay private work too.
In addition to the hospital benefits, Benenden – though a subsidiary which is underwritten by Engage Mutual – offers traditional healthcare cash plans, including one for people over the age of 66, and an over 50s life cover plan, also underwritten by Engage.