The health secretary is concerned about the role of national competition regulators in relation to NHS provider mergers, and could legislate to change their role, he has said.
Jeremy Hunt was asked about the issue at a Commons health committee hearing today.
The 2012 Health Act gave the OFT, the national general competition watchdog, explicit responsibility for mergers between foundation trusts.
Then in March it was confirmed that the OFT would also have responsibility for assessing any merger involving an NHS foundation trust, including mergers between FTs and NHS trusts. Those had previously been reviewed by the NHS Co-operation and Competition Panel.
If the OFT decides a merger might lead to a substantial lessening of competition, and this outweighs any patient benefits of the transaction, it will refer the merger to the Competition Commission for further investigation.
The Competition Commission’s ongoing investigation of the first proposed merger affected by the changes - between Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals and Poole Hospital foundation trusts – has proved controversial.
Several politicians have expressed concerns, including Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who raised the issue at the health committee session. She said the regulators could delay or inhibit service and organisational improvements.
Mr Hunt said in response: “It is a concern for me. We are in new territory here.
“I want to make sure they [the OFT] properly consider the benefits [of proposed mergers] and also that it doesn’t take too long.”
Mr Hunt said mergers between NHS providers were important to improving efficiency and to improving quality under the new inspection and quality regulation regime being developed in response to the Francis report.
He was asked at the committee hearing, on implementation of the Health Act, about whether he would consider new legislation to change the competition regulators’ role.
He said: “If we thought there was a serious problem in terms of the structures and… what we believe is in the interests of patients then we would consider that, yes.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt announced that Kay Sheldon – the non-executive member of the Care Quality Commission who has openly criticised that regulator’s work in recent years – would be reappointed to its board.
Ms Sheldon’s current term on the board was due to end later in the year. Mr Hunt said CQC chair David Prior had requested he reappoint her for a further term, and he had agreed.
Ms Sheldon spoke out at the public inquiry into Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust and, later, on concerns about the CQC’s then leadership, including in relation to its actions over University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust.
Mr Hunt said Ms Sheldon’s concerns had subsequently been proved right, including by Grant Thornton’s report on the CQC’s actions in relation to Morecambe Bay.