The hit to incomes and restrictions on health services caused by the Covid-19 pandemic didn't dampen demand for private health insurance last year, with the market increasing by 1.8% in the period.

That’s according to new data contained in the annual report of the Health Insurance Authority (HIA), which shows that 2.31m people or 46% of the population had private health insurance cover last year.

Those who did have a policy also benefited from steep declines in their premiums caused by the refunds given by insurers during the period as a result of the lower cost of claims they were facing.

On average, the premium paid per person fell to €1,142 over the 12 months.

The three main insurers, VHI, Laya and Irish Life Health, collectively paid out claims totaling €1.88bn.

That’s down 16% on the €2.24bn cost of claims they faced in 2019, prior to the start of the pandemic, as a result of the temporary takeover of large parts of the private hospital sector by the state.

VHI held 49% of the market, Laya had 27% and Irish Life Health had 20%.

The authority has urged consumers to regularly evaluate their needs and compare them to what they are receiving from their policy, because insurers are adding new products all the time.

"This is adding to the complexity of the market and the number of products and that remains a concern from a consumer perspective," said Laura Brien, CEO of the HIA.

"We encourage all consumers to assess their level of coverage each year and compare products available."

The report also shows that the segment of the population most likely to have cover is those aged 45-80, with slightly more women than men covered.

The HIA also said that the risk equalisation scheme, that ensures insurers that have more older patients who tend to make more expensive claims aren’t put at a cost disadvantage, has been extended until March of next year.

Despite the scheme, the report shows that older people pay more on average for health insurance, with those over the age of 65 paying, on average, premiums that are 34% higher than the premiums paid by those under the age of 65 for typical mid-level products.

Chairperson of the HIA, Patricia Byron, said the issue requires further consideration.