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OFT looking into monopoly allegation in private healthcare

New providers complain of barriers to competition.

Britain's business regulatory body, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched an inquiry into the country's private healthcare sector, following complaints by new entrants that the industry does not foster competition, reports the Times.

The relatively young private hospital company Circle, has reportedly lodged a complaint with the OFT where in it argues that the bigger private hospital companies have taken nearly 80 per cent market share control through strategic partnerships with insurance firms.

Circle alleged that insurers have refused to cover patients at its newly opened hospital in Bath, in favour of the older General Healthcare hospital.

The agency which has already finished a preliminary inquiry into the matter has yet to decide on whether it will be continuing with a full-blown probe.

"The OFT is interested in issues of choice and competition in healthcare markets. We are considering the possibility of further work in this area, but at this stage no decision has been taken," said an OFT spokesperson.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.