NIB boss wary of lengthy virus battle
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Healthcare fund NIB says it can afford delaying premium increases, but boss Mark Fitzgibbon has warned that a longer running coronavirus crisis could hit hard financially.

Private health insurers on Sunday said they will postpone April 1 premium increases, which average 2.9 per cent, for at least six months to help Australians manage the financial toll of the pandemic.

The industry announced a range of measures to help customers after talks with the federal government.

Mr Fitzgibbon on Monday told analysts the insurer supported the postponement and would easily accommodate it.

He said he did not believe postponing of the increase would alter the economics of the next six to nine months for NIB.

The cost of the deferred increase would be funded from savings, he said.

These savings will likely come from fewer claims while elective surgery, dentistry and other procedures are suspended to help hospital staff.

However Mr Fitzgibbon was concerned about a prolonged battle with the virus.

He said NIB saw the possibility of the crisis continuing much longer. If customers continued to struggle, this may require NIB to postpone more payments, which would use up the money saved from fewer claims. "At some point, we need to think about what we do," Mr Fitzgibbon said. He remains open to offering more help for customers if needed. "If we think some sort of rebate to our members next year or whenever will help improve retention and preserve our (customer) base, that may be an option for us," he said. Businesses across industry are offering financial hardship payment options to customers after many Australians lost their jobs from the coronavirus impact. Government restrictions on travel, and the temporary closure of social venues, have put many thousands of Aussies out of work. Sophie Walsh, health insurance specialist at product comparison website Finder, said it remained to be seen whether the postponing premium increases would stop Australians cancelling private health insurance. Only 44.1 per cent of Australians have hospital cover, the lowest level since 2007. HBF was among the first in the industry to make a decision on premium increases. Last week the not-for-profit insurer cancelled its increase. Elsewhere in the insurance industry, QBE has withdrawn earnings guidance due to the pandemic. However, rival IAG on Monday left its FY20 guidance unchanged as overall year-to-date profitability is expected to absorb higher net natural peril claim costs and severe investment market movements. It will defer premium payments for up to six months for small businesses experiencing financial hardship. IAG is also offering travel insurance refunds without penalty for the unused proportion of premiums and full refunds for small businesses which cancel their insurance, with no administration or cancellation fees. IAG has also completed the sale of its 26 per cent interest in SBI General in India for a net profit $310 million. The sale was first announced in October and has increased IAG's regulatory capital position by nearly $450 million.