The OFT already has expertise in handling cases in the healthcare sector (such as those involving private hospitals or dental practices with a substantial proportion of NHS patients). It expects to enhance this expertise as the number of cases in this sector increases. In addition, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (Section 79(4)) requires Monitor and the OFT to co-operate during the assessment of merger cases. For example, Monitor must provide the OFT with advice on the effect of the matter under investigation on benefits for people who use healthcare services provided for the purposes of the NHS and such other matters relating to the matter under investigation. Additionally there have been a number of OFT secondments to Monitor, the Co-operation and Competition Panel for NHS services and the Department of Health, building OFT expertise in the health sector.
The OFT has also conducted market studies which consider the interest of NHS patients and patients in general.
In May this year, the OFT published a market study into the £5.73 billion UK dentistry market. This made a number of recommendations, which the OFT identified as in the interests of NHS patients, including in relation to the provision of clear, accurate and timely information for patients, direct patient access to dental care professionals and reform of the NHS dental contract in England.
In April this year, the OFT referred the market for private healthcare to the Competition Commission. The OFT's market study established reasonable grounds that private patients and their GPs face difficulties selecting private healthcare providers on the basis of quality or value for money, and this may ultimately result in patients paying higher prices or receiving lower-quality care.
In September last year the OFT published conclusions of its mobility aids market study. The study concluded that elderly and vulnerable consumers were not being treated fairly by traders, that consumers could not access or act on information easily and that competition in the wheelchair sector was not working well for consumers. It undertook enforcement action against a number of firms and made recommendations to the NHS supply chain and to the community of individual public sector purchasing bodies across the UK, with a view to increasing their ability to drive vigorous competition in the wheelchair sector.
Furthermore, an evaluation of the liberalisation of retail pharmacy services in the UK, following recommendations in an OFT market study, identified shortened travel times and waiting times and improved access to lower-priced over-the-counter medicines, extended opening hours and greater choice for patients.
The OFT has also gained additional experience of the pharmaceutical sector and NHS procurement processes in its proceedings against Reckitt Benckiser under the Competition Act 1998. In April 2011, the OFT announced its decision that Reckitt Benckiser had infringed UK and European competition law in the market for the NHS supply of alginate and antacid heartburn medicines and imposed a penalty of £10.2 million on it.