The private health sector will have to wait until April to discover whether it is to face a Competition Commission probe.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announced in December 2011 that it had provisionally decided to refer the market for privately funded healthcare services in the UK to the Competition Commission for further investigation.
In its announcement last year, the OFT said that it expected “to reach a final decision by the end of March 2012”.
However, a spokesman for the OFT has confirmed that a decision would not be made until the “first half of April” at the earliest. The spokesman would not comment on the reasons for the delay.
The OFT provisionally found that there is a lack of easily comparable information available to patients, GPs or health insurance providers on the quality and costs of private healthcare services.
The OFT believes that this may mean that competition between private healthcare providers and between consultants is not as effective as it could be. In addition, the full costs of treatment may not always be transparent for private patients.
Moreover, due to the limited number of significant private healthcare providers, there are pockets of particularly high concentration in some local areas where private healthcare providers own the only local hospital or a 'must have' facility.
This may give a degree of market power to healthcare providers in these areas, as the larger insurance providers will generally rely on them to be able to provide full national coverage to policyholders.
The report also suggests that a number of features of the private healthcare market combine to create significant barriers to new competitors entering and being able to offer private patients greater choice. For example, some larger private healthcare providers can impose price rises or set other conditions if an insurer proposes to recognise a new entrant on its network. There also appear to be certain incentives given by private healthcare providers to consultants, such as loyalty payments for treating patients at a particular facility, which could raise those barriers further.