THE country's 1.5 million VHI members are facing another increase in premiums in a move which will mark the 50% rise in subscription rates in four years.

The Sunday Tribune has learned that the board of the state-owned health insurance company will meet on Thursday to discuss proposals to increase subscriptions by around 4.5% from September.

If this is approved, the increase proposal will be sent to the Minister for Health, Micheál Martin, at the end of the week. Under legislation, the price increase will go ahead unless the minister objects within a 28-day period.

VHI subscriptions increased by 8% last September and rose by 18% in 2002.

The new price rise is lower than in previous years. This time the company has opted not to make provision to cover what it sees as the failure of the health insurance regulator to introduce a risk equalisation scheme which would see VHI receive millions in payments from its competitors.

Risk equalisation is a form of compensation fund for insurers with older members (who claim more frequently) which is financed by their rivals with largely younger membership profiles.

The government believes that a risk equalisation scheme is essential if the concept of community rating ? where everyone pays the same regardless of age ? is to be maintained. However the health insurance regulator last month declined to introduce the scheme for the present.

VHI has previously argued that the absence of a risk equalisation scheme ? under which it would receive up to .20m from rivals such as BUPA Ireland ? has added around 2% to price increases in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Tribune has learned that the new health insurance company to be launched next month by former VHI chief Oliver Tatton has received a blow after a decision by Bank of Ireland to withdraw its backing from the venture.

The new insurer, to be known as Vivas Financial Services, is expected to secure a licence from the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority later this month.