PRESSURE on the public hospital system is set to intensify after new figures showed thousands more people have dropped their health insurance.
Close to 50,000 people ditched their private health insurance last year, a move that will heap further pressure on Health Minister James Reilly.
This is because more people will be forced to use already under-pressure public hospitals.
Only this week, the European Commission again questioned overspending on the public health budget.
The new figures show that 47,000 stopped paying health insurance premiums in the year up to March.
In the first three months of this year, 21,000 people dropped their inpatient health insurance, according to new data from the Health Insurance Authority.
There are now just over two million people with inpatient cover, compared with almost 2.3 million people when the market peaked at the end of 2008.
Rising premiums and the recession have been the main factors in people giving up inpatient private health insurance.
Health insurance expert Dermot Goode predicted that the numbers with private cover would drop below two million before the end of the year.
Mr Goode, of Healthinsurancesavings.ie, said the rate that people were dropping health cover had slowed.
But he said that this was due to people dropping to cheaper plans and altering the renewal date for their policies in a bid to keep premium costs down.
There have been a string of health insurance price rises this year alone, with some plans soaring by as much as 41pc.
This has put massive pressure on families. Some have responded by dropping their cover, with others dropping down to cheaper plans.
In the latest move to ease the price pressure, the VHI said it would now extend its half-price offer for children and students to all its hospital plans.
And insurers including Glo now allow families to design their own policies.
Benefits have also been reduced on plans. With some plans, not every procedure will be fully paid for, while excesses have been introduced across most plans. This is the amount of a claim you pay yourself before the insurer picks up the tab.
Last summer, Aviva stepped up this trend to limit what a health policy covers a step further by launching its Focus plans that restrict the hospitals where it will pay for procedures.
The plans were 20pc cheaper than similar policies.
Laya followed with no-frills plans of its own, also with major restrictions.
Insurance experts predicted that we were now likely to see a family price war as the companies scramble to sign up more customers.