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NHS private patients at risk of being overcharged, OFT warns

Category : Business

Evidence suggests eight NHS trusts exchanged ‘commercially sensitive information’ about treatment charges

Private patients on the NHS could be at risk of being overcharged after the Office of Fair Trading warned of price fixing.

The OFT said a whistleblower had disclosed evidence that suggested that eight NHS trusts had exchanged “commercially sensitive information” about treatment charges.

It said it had seen email exchanges between the trusts.

The consumer protection watchdog said the trusts, which are part of the Southern Region Private Healthcare Association, avoided a formal investigation after voluntarily agreeing not to share pricing information.

The OFT said it would be writing to all NHS hospitals which operate private health units to warn them that they could be in breach of competition law if they share such information.

Deborah Jones, director in the OFT’s services, infrastructure and public markets group, said the organisation would step in if it received further evidence of non-compliance.

“We welcome the assurances given by these Trusts which have enabled us to bring our preliminary investigation to a close,” she said. “However, this does not preclude the OFT from investigating any aspect of hospital trusts’ economic activities if it receives further evidence of potential infringements of the law. We urge all trusts to take steps to ensure they are compliant with competition law when engaging in commercial activity.

She added: “Where public sector providers compete with the private and voluntary sectors, the OFT is committed to ensuring that there is a level playing field for all so that effective competition encourages suppliers to offer lower prices, better quality and an improved range of goods or services.”

Trusts can earn a sizeable amount for the private work after the government raised the cap of the amount they can derive from private work to 49%.

Charges for private patients can relate to a full range of general and specialist medical services on site, the OFT said, and treatment is covered by most heath insurance schemes.

But trusts can find themselves in trouble over price fixing as comparing costs could mean uncompetitive prices for patients.

“The exchange of commercially sensitive pricing information can result in higher prices for customers, as it can diminish incentives on organisations to compete on price and has the potential to facilitate collusion,” the OFT said. “Where this behaviour is caught by the Competition Act 1998, it can constitute a breach of the law, and consequently may result in financial penalties of up to 10% of worldwide turnover.”

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