Switzerland's biggest health insurer, Helsana, has recorded its first ever loss, putting the spotlight once again on the mounting cost of health care.
On Thursday, Helsana announced a deficit for 2001 of SFr386 million ($246.65 million). The previous year, the company recorded a profit of SFr25 million.
The insurer blamed two-thirds of the loss on special factors such as the worldwide slump in financial markets.
Helsana said its premium income grew during 2001 by 1.9 per cent to SFr3.595 billion, but its payouts rose by 7.2 per cent to SFr3.648 billion. The company has predicted a return to profit in 2002.
The announcement comes a day after Swiss insurers sounded the alarm over the financial state of the industry, predicting an industry-wide loss in the provision of basic health cover of more than SFr700 million for 2002.
Christoffel Brändli, president of the industry umbrella association Santésuisse, warned that growing costs would force premium increases of at least ten per cent, possibly more.
The cost of health insurance in Switzerland has taken off in recent years. Premiums have substantially outstripped inflation, growing by more than six per cent annually since 1996, according to federal figures.
Mandatory basic coverage alone has grown by an average of ten per cent this year, compared with 2001.
Earlier this year, the health insurer, Supra, won permission from the federal government to hike its premiums by more than ten percent - the first time such a move has been approved since the introduction of new health insurance laws in 1996.
The issue of health insurance continues to fuel to debate in Switzerland, with some political and lobby groups demanding reforms such as a freeze in premiums and income-indexed payments.
Last week, the cabinet agreed on a series of reforms aimed at tackling spiralling health insurance costs.
swissinfo with agencies