Spire Healthcare and Spire Healthcare Group (Spire) has admitted that one of its hospitals 'instigated and facilitated' an illegal arrangement with seven consultant ophthalmologists to fix fees for private eye consultations.
Following an investigation by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority, the consultants admitted that they agreed to fix fees for initial private consultations for self-pay patients at £200.
Consequently, they now face fines totalling more than £1.2 million.
Private consultants set their own prices for initial consultations for self-pay patients, but by agreeing not to compete with each other on price, the Spire hospital and the consultants in this case took away patients' chance to choose between the consultants to get the best deal.
The arrangement between Spire and the consultants, who all operated out of a Spire hospital in the north of England, continued for almost two years, the watchdog found.
It was first initiated following a dinner organised by that hospital’s management and attended by 5 of the 7 ophthalmologists, during which the topic of fees was raised. After the dinner, a Spire employee at the hospital sent an email to all 7 consultants to suggest that the agreed price for initial consultations for self-pay patients be set at £200 going forward.
The ophthalmologists confirmed they would charge this fee, with 4 of them raising their prices from £180 to £200. The remaining 3 were already charging £200 and continued to charge this amount. Spire then liaised with its customer service team to facilitate the arrangement, the CMA noted.
“Initial consultations are an essential first step for people suffering from eye disorders. 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.
“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 also stressed that the decision, and subsequent fines, “send a clear signal that we will not tolerate anti-competitive behaviour.”