Mutual can now offer healthy option to all

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A YORK-BASED healthcare society, which mainly offers care to public sector employees and their families is opening up its membership to everyone aged over 16.

Benenden Healthcare Society, a mutual not-for profit friendly society with around 930,000 members, agreed to open up membership in a landslide vote at the society’s annual conference.

A total of 300 delegates voted to change membership criteria from all public sector workers, their families and members of credit unions, co-operatives and charities, to be open to all. Just 28 members voted against.

The society, set up 107 years ago to provide treatment for postal workers with tuberculosis, believes that it has a role to play in providing a non-profit, low-cost ethical business model in the expansion of public services.

Chief executive Ken Hesketh said: “The proposition to conference came about as we realised our previous eligibility criteria, taking up a large chunk of our rulebook, were unrealistic in a modern environment and not supportive of our values and ethos.”

He said that over the years the criteria for being able to join the society had become very complex as families of public sector employees were allowed to join along with other changes such as British Telecom transforming from a public to private company meant that some members were already working outside the public sector.

Mr Hesketh said that the ethos of the organisation, which employs 160 people at its York base, was to be open rather than one which is closed or restricted.

“Our members agreed with us and the vote was massively in favour,” said Mr Hesketh.

The society is forecasting that the open eligibility criteria will result in increases in membership levels from 930,000 this year to around a million in 2016, but the change is about more than just increasing numbers.

Mr Hesketh adds: “This move for open eligibility is not only to increase membership levels.

“We are realistic in realising we must be competitive within a tough healthcare environment, but we are also passionate about the future of mutuals and co-operatives in the UK.

“We believe that mutuals like ours have a strong future in the provision of public services and this move to open eligibility places us perfectly to be a part of that.”

Mr Hesketh said that the society – which pre-dates the NHS by more than 40 years – takes pressure off the NHS by offering patients options.

“Benenden Healthcare has a long history with significant milestones along the way and this represents the most important yet.

“The society aims to complement, not replace, the healthcare provision of the NHS and thus provide greater choice to individuals in tailoring the way they access health in the UK,” he said, adding that where problems are created, Benenden would try to help.

“This is one reason we can offer the service at £1.50 a week – if you compare our product with most other cash plans, it is amazing value for money.”

“This move, to allow any UK resident aged 16 or over to join the society, means that choice is openly accessible with no discrimination due to your employer background.

“We support this choice with low contribution rates, high quality customer service, prompt consultation and treatment – and above all, it is underpinned with a mutual, not-for-profit ethos where every member is able to get democratically involved in the progress of the organisation.”

The society is run as a mutual scheme, rather than as an insurer, where members club together to get medical help they need and offers many of the advantages of private healthcare for a cost of £1.50 per week, regardless of age or pre-existing conditions.

The expansion of the membership rules will also give the society more scope to expand services, which have already grown to include variations on the cash plan for over 65s and end of life insurance product which guarantees a financial benefit on death.

In the future the organisation is planning to develop its family well-being products which focuses on adolescents with lifestyle issues such as substance abuse and obesity.

The society owns a hospital in Kent, where the society first began to provide services for members, and where a large proportion of the membership lives.

Throughout the rest of the country the organisation has around 19 contracts with hospitals to provide services.

Mr Hesketh said that the society is continually looking to expand the number of centres.

“The target is for about 85 per cent of members to be within an hour’s drive of the nearest hospital,” said Mr Hesketh.