Spire Healthcare, the private hospital group, has been fined £1.2m by the Competition & Mergers Authority (CMA) for a price-fixing scheme operated by seven eye specialists who had worked at one of its hospitals in 2017.
The consultant ophthalmologists, all working out of Spire’s Regency Hospital in Macclesfield, had agreed to charge the same £200 fee to ensure self-pay patients could not shop around for a better deal.
The scheme, which lasted for almost two years from August 2017 until one of the consultants turned whistleblower, was discussed at a dinner organised by that hospital’s management and attended by five of the seven consultants.
Following the dinner, during which the topic of fees was raised, a Spire employee at the hospital sent an email to all seven consultants. A Spire employee at the hospital then sent an email to all seven consultants to suggest that the agreed price for initial consultations for self-pay patients be set at £200 going forward.
Once the consultants agreed the amount, with four of them raising their prices from £180, Spire then liaised with its customer service team to facilitate the arrangement.
Michael Grenfell, Executive Director of Enforcement at the CMA, said that it is “unacceptable” that patients were unable to shop around and get the best deal because Spire and the consultants illegally set a minimum consultation fee.
Grenfell said it is “particularly” disappointing that the CMA has had to take action in the private ophthalmology sector again, following a previous finding of anti-competitive practices in the sector in 2015.
He said: “Today’s decision, and the subsequent fines, send a clear signal that we will not tolerate anti-competitive behaviour.”
Spire Healthcare said in a statement: “Although Spire Healthcare did not financially benefit from this alignment, because initial consultation fees are paid directly to the consultant, the CMA investigation found that its behaviour in facilitating the alignment breached competition law.”
It added: “Spire Healthcare apologises for its conduct and fully co-operated with the CMA in its investigation, agreeing to accept the CMA’s findings in full and settle the case with a fine of £1.2m. The CMA acknowledged the group’s strong compliance programme, which resulted in a reduction to the final fine.”
The statement also said that the group has “a strong compliance culture” and is disappointed with the failure to meet its standards in this isolated case.
It said: “The group remains committed to its learning culture and has further strengthened its compliance programme in response to this incident. Spire Healthcare is also investing in a new pricing system which will provide further controls to ensure compliance.”
The consultants involved all agreed to settle, with fines in the range of £642 to £3,859 each, apart from the whistleblower whose punishment was waived for bringing the issue to the CMA’s attention.