Eight NHS Hospital Trusts have given voluntary assurances to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that they will no longer exchange commercially-sensitive information about their Private Patient Unit (PPU) prices, to ensure they comply with competition law.

The OFT approached members of the Southern Region Private Healthcare Association (SPHA) earlier this year, after it received information from a whistleblower which highlighted possible competition concerns about the pricing data being exchanged between SPHA members. 

PPUs allow for private treatment in a hospital within the NHS, generally offering a full range of general and specialist medical services on site. Private treatment in PPUs is covered by most health insurance schemes and patients may also be able to take advantage of low-cost, fixed-price surgery packages from some of the NHS PPUs, the OFT notes.

The Office points out that all public bodies, including NHS Hospital Trusts, are subject to the Competition Act 1998 when engaged in the commercial supply of goods or services, such as paid treatments for private 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; it also has the potential to facilitate collusion. 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, the Office notes.

To address the OFT's concerns, eight NHS Hospital Trusts which are or were members of the SPHA have provided assurances that they will not exchange confidential pricing information and will provide further training to their staff on the importance of complying with competition law where applicable.

The OFT says it will also be writing to all NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts which operate PPUs, enclosing guidance on competition law compliance.

The assurances given by the eight Trusts are welcome, and have enabled the OFT to bring its preliminary investigation to a close, said Deborah Jones, director in the Office's services, infrastructure and public markets group.

However, she added: "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."

"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 improve range of goods or services," Ms Jones added.

NHS Trusts which are members of the SPHA include: - Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust; - Frimley Park Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; - East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust; - Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust; - Dartford & Gravesham NHS Trust and  - University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.