The new chief executive of HSA Healthcare, Des Benjamin, began his job in the unusual situation of knowing very little about the healthcare industry.
In his first few months heading up the UK’s largest cash plan provider, he has been getting to grips with healthcare politics and regulation issues.
But one of the greatest challenges has been the healthcare jargon. “There are certain words which I don’t know the meaning of at the moment such as primary and secondary care,” he says.
But he is used to change. Born in South Africa, Benjamin “upped nappies” at the age of two and a half because he “didn’t like the political situation” (he reveals a keen sense of humour) and settled with his parents in North London. Many years later he began a career in accountancy but, having “seen the light”, left to take a job with Abbey Life as a door-to-door salesman. This, he says, was “a good grounding to learning the twists of sales and marketing”.
Benjamin then ran a successful direct bank from where he moved to general insurance. Most recently he was general manager of the UK’s largest creditor insurer, Consolidated Financial Insurance (now GE Financial Insurance).
However, the best incentive for Benjamin to take the chief executive’s post at HSA was provided by his mother. Although he knew nothing about the UK’s biggest cash plan provider, prior to his interview, he was surprised to find his mum had been a HSA subscriber for many years. Her verdict on the association was: “They’re wonderful.”
Needing no further persuasion to take the job, Benjamin immersed himself in the healthcare industry. He says: “There are two sides to the private sector: PMI and cash plans. But there is a big gap between the two. Cash plans are doing very nicely, whereas PMI is struggling. However, there is quite an overlap between PMI and cash plans – they sit comfortably side by side. Importantly, the cash plan also sits on its own.”
He adds: “The cash plan product doesn’t follow the normal rules of income demographics – it is bought because of attitude, rather than income.”
But he thinks it is no time for the cash plan industry to rest on its laurels. “Where customers know us, they like the product very much. The problem is they don’t know about it or think it is too good to be true. Our job is to create public awareness.”
Benjamin is encouraged by “quite a healthy dialogue between the state and the insurance industry”. And he says the fact that health is a sensitive political issue, is a reason why providers like HSA have to concentrate on improving services.
However, he is concerned that there isn’t a forum for the cash plan industry to talk about its own position in the healthcare market.
“I don’t know how well we present ourselves to the government. I don’t know how much the NHS know about us or how much national journalists know. But a campaign needs to be mounted because there is potential for strong growth,” he says.
Benjamin feels the sheer number of cash plan providers in the market, may be hampering lobbying attempts. But, in future, he sees more consolidation on the way. “With the advent of the GISC we need to make sure our own house is in order. Inevitably, some of the costs of even self-regulation will be quite high. It may prove to be too much for smaller players,” he says.
But while the smaller players are occupied with consolidation issues, Benjamin says he will be working to make HSA a household brand name, although this goal will not involve the introduction of new technology. “The internet is truly overhyped in every quarter. There is no huge rush to throw any money on technology which hasn’t arrived yet from the consumer’s point of view,” he says.
Nor is Benjamin itching to depart from mutual status. “The concept of mutuality is extremely powerful,” he says.
Instead, he will concentrate on applying the lessons of his considerable retail experience to healthcare. “We will focus on putting the customer – a goal which is helped by the fact we are not driven by shareholder value and profit,” he says.