New Price Comparison Website: Health Insurance

This press release came through recently from the Health Insurance Authority:

The Health Insurance Authority just launched a new website with in-depth consumer information pages and a new product comparison tool.

The product comparison allows consumers to compare benefits and prices of health insurance products, enabling them to choose the most appropriate product when buying health insurance and saving money in the process.

The Health Insurance Authority Product Comparison is available here.

I had a quick look at the site and first thing I noticed was that I was offered a health insurance product that seemed to be only available for credit union members – which I’m not.

Given that the myriad of health insurance products that are being made available by the three competitors in the Irish health insurance market, more information can only be better for consumers.

There are, however, a couple of points to note.

Firstly, this wide range of products and different price levels is purely intended to confuse the consumer and to make it hard to make a full price comparison between health insurance products.

Secondly, if this price comparison website is anything like the telecoms site, CallCosts.ie, you should be aware that the service providers could very likely find a way to “game” the website to find a way to always have their own products show at the top of any search that a consumer might make.

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What’s the “Consumer Consultative Panel” doing these days?

Short answer – not a whole lot.

During the course of the meltdown in the Irish banking system last year and the revelations regarding the actions (or inactions) of the Financial Regulator, the supposed consumer representatives within the “system” went AWOL.

And now again in 2009, according to this page of meeting minutes, this panel has not met since July of this year.

So, with massive structural changes (supposedly) being undertaken in how our financial regulatory regime will operate in order to better monitor our financial system, not to mention the huge implications of the adoption of NAMA, the Consumer Consultative Panel at the Financial Regulators has again gone missing – their names are here.

In case you’re not familiar with what this consumer panel are responsible for, here are some details from their own section of the Financial Regulator website:

The functions of the Consumer Panel…. and may be summarised as follows:

  • monitoring the performance by the Financial Regulator of its functions and responsibilities under this Act
  • providing the Financial Regulator with comments with respect to the performance of its functions and responsibilities
  • providing the Financial Regulator with comments and suggestions with respect to the performance of the financial services industry
  • when requested to comment on policy and regulatory documents issued, or to be issued, by the Financial Regulator
  • to comment on the Financial Regulator’s draft estimate of income and expenditure and consult with the Minister for Finance before he approves the draft estimate of income and expenditure
  • providing the Financial Regulator with suggestions for initiatives that, in the Panel’s opinion, the Financial Regulator should take with respect to the performance of its functions and responsibilities.

The industry equivalent, the Industry Consultative Panel, has been even more remiss – they haven’t met since June 2009 according to these meeting minutes.

So, with all the supposed changes that are going to be incorporated into the financial regulatory system in order to make sure that the events of recent years do not happen again, it looks like this is all being done without any input from either the consumer, nor even the market participants (through the official channels anyway).

I did contact the people concerned via their website, but as you’d expect, they haven’t bothered to answer.

Update: December 21st, 2009 – I take it all back – I see that the website has been updated since this post was originally published. There are now meeting minutes from September, October and November 2009. You can see what they were actually doing in those meetings here.

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Press Release: The Real Irish Deal at Easons this Christmas

This came through to me here at ValueIreland.com in the past few days. You can’t go wrong with a book as a gift for Christmas – no matter young or old.

30th November 2009: The theme this Christmas is value and with this in mind, books are a fantastic value gift with something personal for everyone! At Easons, it’s the best value Christmas ever with amazing prices on books and gifts offering the real Irish deal for consumers this holiday season!

Special offers include:
– The “Bestseller Price Blitz” offers up to 50% off the best books of the season.
– Free postage for orders over €25 on www.easons.ie
– The biggest ever 3 for 2 promotion with hundreds of new and bestselling books and cards to mix and match
– Christmas Gift superdeals on gadgets, giftbooks and board games offering seriously low prices until the products sell out.

Choices range from fiction titles which include the bestselling books from the queens of popular Irish fiction to the big guns of crime and suspense writing to non-fiction titles, many of which are focusing on Ireland’s changed economic fortunes, not to mention biography; food and drink, sport, entertainment, spirituality and, of course, a fantastic range of fabulous children and teen books.

As well as books Eason stores are also stocking a massive range of gifts and gadgets – from E-Readers to cameras, DVD box sets to board-games, arts and crafts sets, diaries and calendars. Easons Card Departments also stock hundreds of greeting cards, gift wrap and gift accessories making it a one stop shop for Christmas!

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NAMA in a nutshell?

This e-mail went around last week, so some of you may have seen it already. It’s being described as “NAMA in a Nutshell”:

It is the month of August, on the shores of the Black Sea. It is raining, and the little town looks totally deserted. It is tough times, everybody is in debt, and everybody lives on credit. Suddenly, a rich tourist comes to town.

He enters the only hotel, lays a 100 Euro note on the reception counter, and goes to inspect the rooms upstairs in order to pick one.

The hotel proprietor takes the 100 Euro note and runs to pay his debt to the butcher.

The Butcher takes the 100 Euro note, and runs to pay his debt to the pig grower.

The pig grower takes the 100 Euro note, and runs to pay his debt to the supplier of his feed and fuel.

The supplier of feed and fuel takes the 100 Euro note and runs to pay his debt to the town’s prostitute that in these hard times, gave her “services” on credit.

The hooker runs to the hotel, and pays off her debt with the 100 Euro note to the hotel proprietor to pay for the rooms that she rented when she brought her clients there.

The hotel proprietor then lays the 100 Euro note back on the counter so that the rich tourist will not suspect anything.

At that moment, the rich tourist comes down after inspecting the rooms, and takes his 100 Euro note, after saying that he did not like any of the rooms, and leaves town.

No one earned anything. However, the whole town is now without debt, and looks to the future with a lot of optimism.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Government is stimulating the economy.

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Weekly Grocery Special Offers – Gala added to the listing

Last week I noticed that the Gala chain of stores now make available their weekly special offers on their website. The page is available here.

I have also added that Gala page to the full listing of grocery store special offers available here.

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Price Comparison (comparative advertising) is in the interests of consumers

This interesting e-mail came through recently to ValueIreland.com from a business person who is investigating providing price comparison in their particular market to try to show consumers that they actually do provide better value for money than their competitors.

I read, with interest, your article regarding a possible grocery price comparison site. It started me thinking about the legality of doing something similar in my own industry, on my own site.

I checked recently my pricing in comparison with my competitors and the so called discounters to discover that when all is said and done my prices are as good or better than the vast majority out there.

With every consumer now almost solely interested in price I think this would be worth shouting about.

My company enjoyed a reputation of having top quality products and service over the past couple of years but unfortunately, in a recession, people now associate this with being expensive which is simply not the case.

Obviously I will take legal advice about how I could show that my pricing is better than named competitors but I was wondering if you had any off hand info on the legality of showing price comparisons of similar or the same products on my website.

I would appreciate any assistance you may be able to provide me with, with the aim of offering savings to consumers.

I don’t have the legal specific expertise on this kind of thing, but I don’t believe there can be any problem if you were to report the prices of your competitors on your website.

I believe in advertising terminology this would be known as “comparative advertising”.

As far as I know, there was some recent EC regulations enacted in Ireland to cover “comparative advertising” – the EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES (MISLEADING AND COMPARATIVE MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS) REGULATIONS 2007 – details here.

This regulation is intended to prevent any comparative marketing communications which is misleading or confusing.

For this reason, I believe, if you were to gather your comparative pricing information and ensure that you present it accurately on your website, you shouldn’t have any problem. It might be a good idea to provide the time and date of the prices you’re using from your competitors as well – just in case they try to question where you got your information from. Even better, if you have photographs of the prices you’re using, there can be no misunderstandings (even if you just keep the photos in case any problems arise).

As you’ll probably have read in my comments regarding grocery price comparisons, the problem is to always make sure that the price information displayed is accurate and as up to date as possible.

I’m personally in favour of this kind of advertising but this isn’t something that’s been all that popular historically in Ireland, but is a whole lot more common in the United States. Maybe, if business people are starting to think like this one, we hopefully might see a bit more of it.

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Cutting costs and saving money – there is an important difference

There’s a huge amount of information out there (newspapers, blogs, magazines and on radio and tv) giving you advice on how to cut your costs and save yourself some money.

You’ll read a lot of similar advice here on ValueIreland.com as well.

However, something I’ve written about here before is that just because you’re not spending money doesn’t mean you’re saving money.

So, if you switch your mobile phone or your electricity provider or move your insurance to a cheaper company, what do you do with the money that you save yourself?

If you’ve reduced your outgoings by €100 per month by shopping around for your groceries, what do you do with the money you’ve saved?

Will your savings account have increased by €1200 for the year? Or will you have paid off €1200 extra off your credit card bill or your mortgage?

I appreciate that in some cases, you may have had to make cutbacks in one place in order to be able to pay increased costs elsewhere.

However, as much as possible, if you’re successful in cutting your costs you should really try as much as possible to put even a little bit of those savings away rather than letting it be spent elsewhere.

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AskAboutMoney.com presents “What every consumer MUST know”

Last week, Brendan at AskAboutMoney.com has started this great thread entitled “What every consumer MUST know“. It’s definitely worth checking out and bookmarking.

Some of the topics covered are:

  • Cost per minute of being “put through” when you call directory enquiries
  • The extra cost of calling 1890 and 1850 numbers from mobiles
  • Disputing direct debits with your bank
  • Avoiding Ryanair credit card charges
  • Cutting electricity costs
  • Saving money on pharmacy costs

Click here to read the full thread.

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Refund.ie – A service that I’d stay well clear of

Both the Irish Examiner and the Irish Independent (three times) have blindly (and misguidedly in my opinion) given coverage recently to a new service called Refund.ie.

Crazily, when the Irish Examiner gave the website publicity, they hadn’t even properly published the website – it was full of dummy text with zero information available at the time.

Refund.ie is a private company, set up to make a profit. However, it is claiming that it will pursue financial institutions in situations where consumers feel they have been ripped off.

According to their website:

Refund.ie is a 100% Irish owned company established to fill a vacuum. Refund will help and encourage individual and corporate entities to pursue legitimate complaints in the area of financial services. Our team of experts will review each case with the aim of achieving a refund and/or compensation. In addition to our financial advisers we have a panel of Solicitors who will enforce our findings through the courts where necessary.

As well as pointing out that Refund.ie is not regulated by the Financial Regulator, it also highlights:

However, Refund.ie takes a commission of 22.5pc of any settlement it agrees with a finanical institution, whereas the ombudsman offers the same service free.
The new company also wants a upfront fee of €242, although this will be refunded if there is a successful claim.

Why on earth would you give your money to an organisation like this? From the Irish Independent article again:

Managing director of Refund.ie John Prout said people were still free to go to the ombudsman if they were not satisfied with the service they received from a claims management company like his.

Or, even more of a ridiculous suggestion:

They could also come to Refund.ie if a claim was rejected by the Ombudsman.

I find it ridiculous that a company think that they can get away with inviting consumers to pay them money to follow up on a claim that has already failed when reviewed by the statutory body responsible for such complaints, the Financial Services Ombudsman.

In my opinion, a company such as this shouldn’t even be given such cheap, easy and unquestioning press coverage. As far as I’m concerned, it’s preying on the fears and insecurities of consumers who may have a certain apprehension about going up against their bank in a complaint situation.

But, much as I have issues with parts of how the Financial Services Ombudsman works, that is what they’re there for – to help consumers – and, shock horror, all for free.

From the Ombudsmans office website:

The Financial Services Ombudsman is a statutory body set up under the terms of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2004 (Section 16 and schedules 6 and 7).
The Financial Services Ombudsman is a statutory officer who deals independently with unresolved complaints from consumers about their individual dealings with all financial service providers. It is a free service to the complainant.

So, if you have a complaint against a financial institution – go first through their own complaints handling process. (Click here for top tips on how best to approach going through a compaints process with any organisation, including financial institutions).

And if you don’t get anywhere with your complaint by going direct, then go to the Financial Services Ombudsman.

And stay away from companies like Refund.ie.

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Rail User? Have you noticed your annual fare has increased?

I can’t at the moment find the newspaper article I’m sure I read recently where it was said that Irish Rail would not be increasing fares into 2010. (If anyone saw it, and knows where it is, please link below).

However, based on an e-mail I received recently, it looks like Irish Rail will be increasing fares by over 10% in 2010 for some of their customers. Travelling in from Kildare, last year an annual ticket cost €1950, while for 2010 the same ticket will cost €2170 – an increase of 11%

There’s no details on the Irish Rail website about these increases.

Has anyone else noticed these price rise?

Update: Thanks to the ValueIreland reader who sent me in the story I was referring to – it’s here in the Sunday Business Post from November 8th, CIE pledges freeze of bus and train fares.

In what seems like a complete contradiction of what the VI reader above is experiencing, Barry Kenny, Iarnród Eireann spokesperson is quoted as saying the following:

The cost increases are not in the economy at the moment, and there is no need to increase fares for customers.

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