The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has singled out consumer issues in private health insurance as a priority area for 2017. Released on 24 February, the 2017 ACCC Compliance and Enforcement Policy highlights that the ACCC is continuing to keenly investigate issues in the private health insurance sector and more cases are expected this year.

The ACCC's Policy does not provide details about the particular activities of private health insurers that it will target. However, it is likely that the ACCC will continue to focus on consumer law issues relating to the adequacy of information provided to private health insurance consumers, communications with consumers about benefit changes and unfair contract terms.

Although the ACCC's focus on private health insurance is unsurprising given the activity of the ACCC in this sector last year, the specific focus means that all businesses in this sector need to be prepared for the possibility of an ACCC investigation. The start of a new calendar year also marks a good opportunity for businesses to review their competition and consumer law compliance programs, and identify key risk areas for the year ahead.

As outlined in our ACCC investigations guide, there are steps that businesses can take to make sure that they are prepared for an investigation by the ACCC. The steps include:

  • Maintain an internal compliance program - An effective compliance program can help to pick up potential issues and therefore reduce the risk of an ACCC investigation. Compliance training (which is tailored to the business and relevant staff) should be provided regularly, and compliance materials kept up to date.
  • Review internal processes, protocols and record keeping - Ensuring that the company is in a position to quickly and efficiently produce relevant information and documents in response to an ACCC investigation can help to reduce the cost and disruptiveness of an investigation.
  • Monitor complaints - Frequent complaints about a particular issue could signal potential risks under competition or consumer law. Monitoring complaints can help to pick up and address such risks early.
  • Identify and monitor risk areas - It is important to have processes in place to ensure that risks are identified and legal advice is sought when appropriate. Examples of what could be put in place to monitor risk areas include processes for legal review of marketing collateral before publication and regular audits of high risk areas to identify potential issues.
  • Keep up with developments - Understanding ACCC focus areas, and relevant developments in the law through cases or legislative change, can help to focus compliance efforts. The ACCC's yearly report on private health insurance provides useful insight into particular issues that the ACCC is concerned about.