In a country impoverished by a lengthy communist regime and with a convalescent present in which the health sector is in dire straits, Zahal Levy, President of MediHelp International, is confident. The company he leads offers Romanians an alternative to the public health system: private medical insurance and, in his own words, he witnesses the Romanians’ dramatic change of mentality in relation to the private sector.
– What is MediHelp’s history in Romania?
– We started out in 1999 with expatriate insurance, the international expatriate insurance. Very quickly we changed it into local insurance. The idea was to grant international access to any form of medical care. When I say any form of medical care I mean just that. Any doctor, any investigation, hospitalization or emergency. All over Europe, worldwide, depends on the level of the insurance bought. And we started to see that the locals in the tree countries where we were active showed great interest in the products so we started to modify our own products in order to better attach them to the local needs and I can proudly say that our products are the best-sold in Eastern Europe and we do only that, we are specialised in medical care through insurance. That’s all we do.
– MediHelp has proven to be a success story in Romania on the profile market. What are the factors and the key ingredients that have contributed to this success?
– Number one: the fact that we are specialised. We don’t do anything else. We don’t deal with any other insurance. Over the years it was very tempting to look in other directions of insurance. People started to tell us that we need to sell life insurance, this insurance, that insurance, so we offer only medical insurance. So the specialty here is the first basis for success. The second thing is a very strong principle in this company which we have set from the beginning. Which goes in all directions. There is a rule here that if you play fair, we play fair. This is good for the staff, for partners, for suppliers, customers, insurance companies, the state… We don’t play games and we keep everything, all the relationships we have are transparent and honest. Customers appreciate this, insurance companies appreciate this and as a result of this we are probably the most trustworthy partner of the British insurance companies we work with.
– How would you describe the medical insurance market in Romania?
– There is a very big problem in the healthcare market in Romania. The situation is that you have inherited 50 years of neglected medical care. This we know. But there are also other factors that are making the healthcare in this country impossible. Number one: there is an ageing population which grows bigger and bigger percentage-wise. Number two: there is a problem with the medical technology which is becoming more and more expensive. For example, an MRI unit, ten years ago, cost 1 million Euros. Today it costs almost 4 million Euros. So there is a very, very big increase in the costs of technology. The third problem that the medical environment suffers from is corruption. So people are making decisions not in favour of the public, but in favour of themselves. The fourth problem is the brain drain. Very good Romanian doctors and nurses have left because of the low wages. As a result of this the size of the medical personnel who are learning to offer medical services is not growing and the experience is lost. We lost. The next thing is lousy management. The healthcare, the hospitals, most of the healthcare management in this country is lousy and not professional. Corroborated with the corruption it is a disaster. And the last thing, which is general, but related, is the weakening of the state. The state has difficulties in collecting taxes so therefore there are a lot of healthcare users who are not honestly paying their share in the taxation. Put all of this together and you come to an impossible situation. So the ministry of health cannot solve the problem by making promises to the public so instead of coming to the public and telling them the truth and tell them ‘Dear Romanian public, I have bad news for you. With the amount of money I have I can give you this amount of medical care. If you want more there’s no problem. So either you pay me more taxes, or you go and buy your own medical care, on a private basis’. Because the Government is not telling the truth, they still bear the responsibility of individual healthcare in this country, everything is stuck. The Government does not have the resources to solve the healthcare problems, the private sector is not growing fast enough, the medical insurance which was supposed to be the vehicle and the injector of money into healthcare in order to develop the system is not functioning.
– So how do you manage on this market?
– First of all, we have been in contact with the Government for a long time trying to convince them to introduce tax facilities for medical insurance. This is number one. Because I can assume that the Government of Romania cannot solve the problem. The amount of money that is needed to cure the health system in this country is immense. There is no chance in the world that with the existing resources that the Romanian Government has they can fix the situation. So it is better to go to the public and tell them ‘Buy health insurance’, offer tax facilities, encourage private medical providers to grow and with the money that is relieved because now people will consume healthcare on private basis the Government will have to take care of those who do not have money to pay for insurance.
– How many hospitals do you work with?
– We have two circles of connections to hospitals. First of all we have a number of hospitals that are part of healthcare providers in Romania and Eastern Europe where we have a direct billing arrangement. But we cannot have agreements with every clinic in Europe at every corner. So if you have insurance with me and you want to visit a friend in Greece, on an island, I cannot guarantee that if you go to this hospital there will be an arrangement. So our policy is the free choice. You can go anywhere you like, you can pay and we can guarantee that in ten days we reverse the charges in the way you pay. If you pay with credit card, you will see credit on your card, if you pay through a bank transfer the money will be transferred in your account. So you don’t need to worry whether we have a direct billing arrangement or not. So if you have your doctor which you like, in a private clinic, and this doctor moves to another private clinic you can move with him. Whether we have an arrangement or not, we can always guarantee the payment. In full. If the policy covers it.
– How has the economic crisis influenced your activity in Romania?
– Like everybody else, we suffered. There was a period of time when we were very worried, there was a drop in the amount of sales, in revenues, the atmosphere was lousy, but we knew that this was a worldwide phenomenon, it was all over Europe, it was not only us, so we knew that we have to stick to what we do, we rendered the system efficient, we believed in what we are doing and we just kept on working and gave hope to the staff, showed them that we know what we are doing, we know where we are heading and in the end it’s going to be OK, and in life there are always ups and downs and if there’s a down it means there will be an up. And it came.
– How much has the Romanians’ mentality regarding health insurance plans changed since your arrival on the market, in 1999?
– Dramatically. Today 90 per cent of our customers are Romanians, Bulgarians and Hungarians. There are more and more Romanians who gave up public healthcare and don’t want to hear about this anymore and they want to take the responsibility in their own hands and if something happens they want to be certain that they will receive the best medical care, if possible in Romania, if not we send them outside. The old style approach is slowly changing and in the end Romania will become like any other nation, there will be a basic health package with state and private health insurance, there will be no choice. And the sooner the better.
– Can you tell me how many contracts you have in Romania?
– We don’t disclose numbers, but I can tell you that we have many, many thousands.
– Do you have competition on the Romanian market?
– It is very difficult to know. As far as we know, we don’t have competition specialised in the same field. On the other hand, the market is controlled by the medical “abonament” (subscription) so it’s up to you to decide if there is competition or not. In a way it is, in a way it isn’t. But insurance companies that are selling exactly what we sell I don’t see anywhere in Eastern Europe.