In his speech about Competition in Public Services, the Chief Executive of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has expressly mentioned the need to address market design issues in the current reform of the provision of public services and, more specifically, healthcare services. It is worth noting that the OFT considers that:
Market design needs to flow from the public policy
objectives intended from opening up a market.
For example, in health it has been considered necessary to
fix price tariffs and allow competition to focus on quality to avoid
competition focusing on price at the expense of quality. In this context,
quality is partly about clinical outcomes, partly about other things like
access and service.
But articulating clear objectives can be difficult when the
purpose of introducing choice and competition itself varies: sometimes to
address concerns about quality, choice or innovation; in others to reduce
costs. Weighing up these points is an important first step in market design (emphasis added),
As should be expected, it looks like the OFT's approach to the reform of healthcare provision is based on the premise that competition is still the best mechanism to achieve the desirable levels of quality. And this seems difficult to reconcile with the provisions of the National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) (No. 2) Regulations 2013, which (as briefly discussed here) precisely allow NHS commissioners to engage in anti-competitive behaviour (ie in distortions or restrictions of competition) in order to achieve desired quality improvements.
With this in mind, it looks difficult to reconcile the substantive guidance given by the sectoral regulator Monitor--which has advanced that qualitative assessment is not a mathematical exercise and that quality improvements can justify reductions in competition (although some marginal competition is expected to be protected)--with the warning issued by the OFT, which Chief Executive has stressed that it will seek direct enforcement of the competition provisions in the healthcare sector where appropriate, as its recent enforcement track record shows, since:
For example, last summer we secured voluntary assurances from eight NHS Hospital Trusts that they will no longer exchange commercially sensitive information about their Private Patient Unit (PPU) prices, to ensure they comply with competition law. We have urged all Trusts to take steps to ensure compliance with competition law when engaging in commercial activity.
One can wonder whether this type of enforcement activities will still be possible when NHS commissioners argue that their anti-competitive behaviour is justified on the basis of Regulation 10(1) of the 2013 Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition (No. 2) Regulations, since it was carried out in the patients' interest, measured in qualitative terms.
However, closer coordination with the sectoral regulator Monitor may be necessary at this point in order to prevent sending mixed messages to the actors in the field and, more importantly, to prevent situations where an excessively broad interpretation of regulatory exclusions of competition could take place. The market structure resulting from the current wave of public sector reform is likely to influence market dynamics for a relatively long time in the future and, consequently, getting the process right is of utmost importance.