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Ophthalmologists cop black eye from competition czar

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The competition watchdog has delivered a major rebuff to the nation’s ophthalmologists, denying those who work in shared practices permission to collectively set fees.

Just three months after giving the green light for GPs working in the same practice to collectively set patient charges, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has knocked back a similar request from the Australian Society of Ophthalmologists (ASO).

In a draft decision with clear implications for specialties where practitioners are in heavy demand, Commission Deputy Chair Dr Michael Schaper indicated that, in coming to its determination, the watchdog had paid close attention to the dynamics of the market for ophthalmologist services.

Dr Schaper said particular note had been made of the fact that the majority of the nation’s 812 practicing ophthalmologists worked in shared practices.

“The ACCC is concerned that, if most ophthalmologists could agree with other members of their practices on prices for services, it may result in higher prices for patients,” he said. “This is particularly concerning in an environment of high demand and long waiting times for these services.”

Currently, each ophthalmologist sets their own fees, in competition with those in their area – including in their practice.

The watchdog said the reason GPs had been given permission for joint practice fee setting where ophthalmologists had not was the relative scarcity of the latter, with only “a small number in any given area within Australia…unlike the larger number of GPs”.

Although it is only a draft decision, the wording of the ACCC’s announcement appears to offer the ASO little encouragement of a change of view before the final determination is issued.

“The ACCC’s preliminary view is that the public benefits are not likely to outweigh the detriments from the proposed arrangements,” the statement said. “The ACCC may grant an authorisation when it is satisfied that the public benefit…outweighs any public detriment.”