Healthcare mutual goes from strength to strength

When the National Health Service was founded more than 60 years ago, Health Minister Aneurin Bevan hoped for a universal healthcare system “from the cradle to the grave.”

In the intervening years, the NHS has often been a shining example to the rest of the world – but not quite everything falls under its reach.

Which is where organisations such as the Simplyhealth Group are able to step into the breach. Now part of Co-operatives UK, the healthcare mutual is thriving, with around 1,100 staff, more than one million policyholders and a turnover of over £335 million a year.

The group’s Chief Executive, Des Benjamin, is anticipating that it will flourish thanks to its new relationship with the Co-op Movement. He said: “It’s great to be able to use my experience and skills in an organisation that offers such enormous social value through its ethos of equality to all and the way we treat our customers.”

Originally the Hospital Saving Association, Simplyhealthcare’s HQ is in Andover. It has been in existence for 137 years and incorporates other mutuals, such as the Bristol Contributory Welfare Association, Healthsure, LHF and Totally Active. “We all have slightly different roots but we work around the same premise,” says Des.

At one time, in pre-NHS days, there were up to 200 such organisations across the country aiding those who could not afford hospital treatment, but now Simplyhealth helps people who need an extra safety net for everything from dental treatment to alternative medicine and optical services.

“It would be lovely to think that all healthcare was freely available at the point of use, but it is not. In dentistry alone, some 20 million people are not availing themselves of care and, when it comes to spectacles and optical treatment, there has to be an affordable alternative.

“The same is true of alternative therapies, such as physiotherapy and osteopathy, and the additional costs of being in hospital overnight, such as car parking, use of the telephone and snacks.

“We keep it as affordable as possible — around £2 per week — and our aim is to be as inclusive as possible. Our customer base is an interesting mix. In broad terms, we reflect the UK population but we’re particularly geared to older people and those who prefer to organise themselves so that whatever happens they have peace of mind.”

Des acknowledges that changes in the healthcare system — and government health policy — have led to increased business. A lack of accessible and affordable dental and optical care has meant that turnover is three times what it was in 2000. “For many people, these things are just not affordable as a one-off financial hit. So we get people the healthcare they need without the financial burden that would mean they put things off.”

Now the organisation is officially part of the Co-op family, Des believes its ideals will be even closer to core values.

“I have been on the board of [mutual think-tank] Mutuo for the past few years and one of things I have seen is that people in the Co-op Movement really believe in what it’s about and do as much as they can to promote the values. I really admire that.

“We have been caught up in a very selfish world and we need to break the back of that if we are to change things. The Co-op has proved itself to me as a Movement with strong fundamental values. There are a lot of things we still aspire to and I hope we can bring good standards to the benefit of Co-op Movement through working together as mutual organisations.”

In the months ahead, Des and his team will be working on a number of projects. “We’re currently helping Oxford University build a course around mutual management and we’re going to be working with Co-operatives UK as much as we can. I think as mutuals we don’t get the credit we deserve in balancing the interests of our members and suppliers. It’s a much tougher job than just fulfilling shareholders’ expectations. Instead of paying shareholder dividends, we give money to health-related charities like Prostate UK, and Alzheimer’s charities.”

Simplyhealth is also sponsoring the programme of events organised by Co-operatives UK this year, including Co-operative Congress and the National Retail Conference.

As the recession bites, Des believes more people are likely to take advantage of the added healthcare options which organisations like his are able to offer.

“If public funding becomes tighter then that will particularly be the case. But I think our success is already reflected in that we are in the Sunday Times Top 100 companies and we’re renowned for good employment practices, the role we play in giving money to charities and the fact that we deal with over 15,000 claims per day.

“As one of the most successful organisations in the third sector, we’re well placed to do what we do every week and we will be able to do that even more as part of Co-operatives UK.”

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