EVEN though the market inquiry into the private healthcare sector is not a court process, those with something to hide might not get away scot-free.

The Competition Commission has warned stakeholders that it may initiate investigations based on what it hears during the inquiry. Commission spokesman Itumeleng Lesofe said on Thursday the commission could refer a complaint to the Competition Tribunal or initiate an investigation should it find evidence of illegal conduct.

"The Competition Commission Act also gives us the option to initiate further inquiries after being guided by the recommendations of the inquiry panel, and should the information be sufficient for us to do so, we will consider the option," Mr Lesofe said.

The public hearings will begin next month, more than two years after the inquiry was first announced.

The hearings had been pushed back to February 16 because stakeholders were unable to prepare for prehearing consultations during the Christmas break, former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, who chairs the inquiry, said.

Judge Ngcobo said the fact that submissions made by the public and stakeholders in the sector were not always substantiated by data had also added to the inquiry’s research workload and contributed to the delay.

He reminded stakeholders that the hearings did not amount to litigation, but were aimed at gathering information.

The purpose of the inquiry was to establish how competition was hampered or enhanced in the private healthcare sector currently and, subsequently, make recommendations to the Competition Commission, he said.

The inquiry had no power to implement any of its recommendations.

Evidence leaders would present information and guide witnesses during the hearings, but they would not function as prosecutors, Judge Ngcobo said. They would not be allowed to cross-examine witnesses as would be the case in a courtroom.

In preparation for the hearings, consumer groups, nonprofit organisations, service providers, suppliers, funders and policy makers in the private healthcare sector would meet for prehearing consultations from January 26-29.

The deadline for publication of the inquiry’s report is December 15.