Concerns raised over Argus purchase of BF&M stake
The purchase of shares in one of the island’s main health insurers by a rival firm has been flagged as cause for concern by the One Bermuda Alliance.
Michael Dunkley, the Shadow Minister of Health and Seniors, called the revelation on Tuesday that Argus Group Holdings was interested in purchasing a 36.9 per cent stake in BF&M “concerning”.
The move, which would give Argus a significant minority stake in the insurer, also prompted warnings in the Senate for regulators to monitor the purchase closely.
“Argus is a direct competitor to BF&M who has in recent years expanded their reach into the health industry via their purchase of the physician offices as one example,” Mr Dunkley said.
“There are potential adverse implications of an investment in a direct competitor, and in light of the fact that the cost of healthcare has soared for years on the island with severe consequences to everyone, and a lack of a plan and action by the current government, the OBA calls on the Government to assure Bermudians and residents that profits will not prevail over the need for people to have good healthcare at a reasonable cost of insurance.”
Mr Dunkley said the Progressive Labour Party had “to date failed with health reform while costs have continued to rise”.
He added: “Long wait times at the hospital ER are a worrying concern, and there’s a hospital whose finances are under pressure.”
He called the announcement of the intended investment stake “another sign that the Government has fiddled while business continues to take advantage of opportunities”.
Mr Dunkley posed an open query to Argus, the Government and the Bermuda Health Council: “How will the consumer benefit from this transaction?”
Senators weighed in on the proposal during the motion to adjourn, with Leslie Robinson, the Junior Minister of Economy and Labour and Public Works, telling the Upper House the news would have been received by many in the community as “quite a shock”.
“For so many decades, Argus, BF&M, Colonial and Freisenbruch have been able to provide the necessary insurance for us.”
Ms Robinson said the implication of the “shrinking of companies able to provide insurance” would raise the fear of health insurance premiums rising.
“I would say in challenge to the Bermuda Monetary Authority, who are the primary regulator for both insurance companies, as well as the Bermuda Health Council, to clearly look at what is happening.”
She noted that other jurisdictions were protected by antitrust legislation prohibiting agreements between major market players that would restrict competition.
“We do not have that here in Bermuda. But what we do have are regulators that will need to review the deal and provide their consent.”
Douglas De Couto, the Shadow Minister of Economic Development, told the Senate he owned shares in BF&M.
He added: “I’m not sure if this will be better for me or not.”
Residents were required by law to by auto insurance and to have health insurance, he noted.
“The implications of this on our community need to be thought out very, very carefully.
“It can have scary financial implications for our community.”
Dr De Couto said the Government needed to examine the deal well as the BMA and BHeC.
“If I was the Government, I would be doing a lot more than hoping. I would be rolling up my sleeves and getting into this.”