Spire Healthcare has admitted one of its private hospitals set up an illegal price-fixing agreement on consultancy fees for people suffering from eye disorders such as cataracts and glaucoma.
It is to pay £1.2 million in fines from the Competition and Markets Authority regulator.
The private hospital giant admitted illegally fixing prices with seven consultant ophthalmologists to charge self-pay patients a £200 fee for initial private consultations.
The arrangement was agreed after a dinner organised by the hospital’s management at which the fees were discussed.
After the meal, a Spire employee emailed the consultants to suggest the agreed price. They agreed, resulting in four of them raising their prices from £180. The others were already charging £200.
However, one blew the whistle on the cartel and the Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation.
The consultants received fines of between £642 and £3859 and escaped being named. The whistleblower was not fined at all.
It is the second recent case of private ophthalmologist breaking competition law. A membership organisation of consultants were fined £382,500 previously for cartel behaviour in 2015.
The price-fixing arrangement was in place from at least 29 August 2017 to 3 July 2019 and was organised by Spire’s Regency hospital in Macclesfield.
CMA executive director of enforcement Michael Grenfell said: “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. Today’s decision, and the subsequent fines, send a clear signal that we will not tolerate anti-competitive behaviour.”
Spire said it had not profited from the cartel and that the hospital had “facilitated the alignment [of prices] with an intention to simplify pricing for patients”.
It said it was “disappointed” with its failure to live up to its “strong compliance culture.”