One of the Department of Health’s integrated care pilot schemes is to be investigated by the co-operation and competition panel to see if it breaches merger, choice and competition rules.

Under pilot scheme, City Hospitals Sunderland foundation trust plans to merge with a local GP practice. The merger would represent a case of “vertical integration”, which the DH has been wary of due to concerns acute trusts could use control of a GP practice to drive up the number of acute referrals.

DH competition rules, published in 2007, state that primary care trusts must seek permission from the department before contracting for “list-based primary care services” through a hospital provider.

The panel’s investigation will use the Sunderland case to test assumptions and concerns about vertical integration. In a statement, the panel said it would “assess the extent to which the integrated care scheme may limit patient choice in relation to the type of NHS-funded healthcare services provided by each [provider]”.

It will also assess any benefits the model brings patients and taxpayers.

The panel is inviting submissions from interested parties. The closing date is 26 June. The earliest date for the completion of the investigation is early August, with the possibility of it continuing until the end of November if the issues are deemed complex.

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