Mutual ideal still runs as strongly as ever in our veins
9th March 2011
Benenden Healthcare Society is a mutual organisation that was born from the aspirations of ordinary people over 105 years ago and it still aims to improve the lives of around 930,000 people across the UK on a daily basis.
It is the Society’s humble origin that contributes to members’ pride in the organisation.
The Benenden Healthcare Society story began with Charles Garland’s idea to help his fellow sorting office colleagues. Here was an ordinary Post Office clerk who was appalled at the plight of his many colleagues who were contracting and dying from Tuberculosis (TB). Figures from the early 1900s show that out of every 100 deaths of Post Office sorting clerks, almost half were down to TB.
The dusty, cramped offices in which sorting clerks and telegraphers worked were ideal conditions for the highly infectious disease to flourish.
At the turn of the last century, good healthcare was not within the reach of people who earned just a few pounds a week. Available sanatoria for the treatment of TB were largely restricted to the rich and often based in mountainous European countries like Switzerland. As a result, access to this level of healthcare treatment was a very rare occurrence for lower paid workers.
Charles Garland aspired to correct this wrong – in an age 50 years before the creation of the NHS – and the mutual model appeared the perfect remedy. His solution? That Post Office workers could contribute an affordable two shillings a year (half a penny a week) from their salaries, with one shilling deducted every six months. Thus if 30,000 people subscribed, then it would easily cover the cost of treating the 120 or so a year who needed it – as well as leaving funds for a contingency fund.
It was an instant success. Now, nearly 106 years later, around 930,000 people still benefit from that very simple idea and even now, the cost is still relatively affordable to most UK-based families at £1.50 per person, per week. Such is the level of loyalty to the organisation that some existing members have been paying subscriptions since they ‘signed on the dotted line’ as teenagers just starting their civil service careers in the 1950s.
Of course, the range of healthcare services has widened considerably and members of the Society can benefit from a range of information-based and treatment-based benefits.
But right at the heart of the Society, the mutual ideal still encourages regular debate. All members are invited to attend meetings of their local ‘branch’. From these meetings, propositions on the business direction of the Society or suggestions for new services can be submitted to an Annual Conference. At these conferences, delegates from branches can vote on the way that they feel the Society should be run.
How often can members of an organisation make a real, direct difference to the way they access or receive services? If you become a member of Benenden Healthcare, you have that opportunity to get involved.
Members also inherit a duty of care not associated with many other organisations. Because services are discretionary, members are encouraged to assess the scale of their own need for a service and to only approach the Society for assistance if they cannot receive the same high quality service via the NHS.
This sets Benenden Healthcare apart from other healthcare providers, in that they aim to complement the work of the NHS and not replace it. They want to help with public service provision and to alleviate the pressure on the public purse.
That ethos of co-operation with the NHS and the ethos of mutual values is one of the reasons why Benenden Healthcare’s membership is still largely made up of current or former public sector workers. People who dedicate their lives to public service often find great resonance with mutual organisations.
Benenden Healthcare is fiercely proud of its mutuality and co-operative instincts – so much so that it seeks to be much more closely linked with other like-minded organisations. Recently it teamed up with Engage Mutual to develop a cash plan product and explore the potential of other health & wellbeing products.
The Society is also proud of its links with the community, a natural extension to its mutual values, and so won ‘Large Business of the Year’ at the York Press Business Awards in November 2010 – largely attributed to its work within the York area.
There’s no resting on the laurels and the Society is already looking to the future with plans to expand its services, improve its online service provision and continue the development of Charles Garland’s simple, but continually relevant, ideal of people coming together to work towards a better future for all.
You can take a look at Benenden Healthcare’s mutual ethos in action on our YouTube channel where there’s a range of videos looking at our history, our services and our future aspirations.
(this article first appeared in Co-operative News, Feb 15, 2011)