Are you fixing prices?

By Robin Stride

Independent practitioners are being urged to urgently review if they are competing fairly over fees following the first case of a consultants’ group breaking competition law.

The Consultant Eye Surgeons Partnership (CESP) Ltd, representing interests of 37 limited liability partnerships (LLPs) and their 200 consultant members, was fined £382,000 by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) last August after admitting liability for a number of infringements (Indep­endent Practitioner Today, September 2015).

But the CMA believes many consultants may remain unaware how competition law can affect the way they work. Now it says it wants to help doctors’ businesses ensure they avoid making the same errors.

Ultimately, it suggests doctors take legal advice over any concerns that the way they operate could risk breaking competition law.

Ann Pope

Ann Pope

CMA’s senior director for anti-trust enforcement, Ann Pope, stressed it was important for private consultants to ask themselves who their competitors were.

She agreed it might seem an odd question when patient care was the primary focus. But she said competition played a vital role in ensuring self-pay and insured patients benefited from a well-functioning market – lower prices, more choice and better quality.

Mrs Pope warned consultants working as part of a group to check they were not discussing or sharing information that could land them in trouble:

‘If you and your fellow group members work as part of an LLP or limited company and only apply your services via this intermediary, then you are part of one economic unit and any discussions you have internally about fees would not be a competition issue.

‘The situation becomes more complicated if you also work as a sole trader outside the group, as well as being a member of a group, as decisions made internally within the group could then be used to influence your commercial conduct as a sole trader – such as the fees that you may charge for specific procedures.’

Choices about fees or whether a group intended to accept an insurer’s or facility’s package price should be made independently and not as a result of discussion with other consultant groups.

CESP said it had paid the fine in full, noted the CMA’s comments and taken appropriate action.

In our next issue, Mrs Pope will explore the case in more detail.

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