STRUCTURE: The Competition and Markets Authority has begun a review of the proposed merger between Frimley Park Hospital Foundation Trust and its troubled neighbour Heatherwood and Wexham Park Foundation Trust.

The review, to examine the potential effect of the merger on patient choice and care quality, will be only the second such probe since the 2012 Health Act gave the UK’s general competition authorities oversight of mergers between NHS foundation trusts.

If this merger is successful, it will be the first to have been given the go-ahead under the new competition regime.

The last merger to be reviewed under this regime, between the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals and Poole Hospital, was ultimately blocked last October by the Competition Commission, which concluded the proposed benefits of the merger did not outweigh the harm from the loss of competition.

The two trusts then signed an undertaking in January not to merge for 10 years.                                            

The CMA, which formed this week through a merger of the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission, yesterday issued an “invitation to comment” on the Heatherwood and Frimley Park merger. This is to seek the views of third parties to the proposed transaction.

The planned merger is being sought as a means to assure the future of services at Heatherwood and Wexham Park, following long-running financial problems and repeated care failings.

An unannounced inspection by the Care Quality Commission at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough last October found evidence of inadequate care, regular short staffing on “almost all wards”, and a culture where “staff did not always feel they could raise concerns”.

The trusts serve patients across Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire.

The deadline for comments to be received on the proposed merger is 11 April. The authority said in a statement:  “The CMA undertakes an objective and evidence-based assessment of the effects of NHS mergers on competition and aims primarily to ensure that such mergers do not result in lower levels of quality of healthcare services for patients.”

It is expected that the full business case for the merger will be completed by the end of April, with an intended completion date for the acquisition, subject to regulatory approval, by August.