Sources say many public and private hospitals in SA sterilise and reuse medical devices that are designated as single-use items by the manufacturers. The main reason for the practice is to keep a lid on rising prices, although hospitals have been known to charge medical schemes for such devices more than once. Picture: ISTOCK
Sources say many public and private hospitals in SA sterilise and reuse medical devices that are designated as single-use items by the manufacturers. The main reason for the practice is to keep a lid on rising prices, although hospitals have been known to charge medical schemes for such devices more than once. Picture: ISTOCK

THE World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) controversial report on South African private hospital prices will be the focus of a special session of the Competition Commission’s health-care market inquiry.

The WHO’s report concluded that South African private hospital prices were expensive by international standards.

The issue is a sensitive one as it goes to the heart of the inquiry, which was established to determine whether there are barriers to competition and patient access.

The stakes are high for private hospitals, which are free to set their own rates. They fear the inquiry may recommend that the government step in to control prices.

The WHO report was presented to the market inquiry during its first week of public hearings in February.

The study was carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and compared South African private hospital prices with those in 20 OECD countries.

It found that higher levels of economic development in a country generally corresponded to higher prices for hospital services, but SA bucked the trend.

Private hospital prices in SA were on a par with much wealthier countries such as the UK, Germany and France, yet other goods and services cost about half those seen in OECD countries, the report found.

Private hospitals were expensive in SA relative to the country’s income and general price levels for goods and services.

However, the report was immediately criticised by the Hospital Association of SA (Hasa), which said at the time that it had compared SA’s private health system unfairly with public healthcare in other countries.

Since then, several other stakeholders have made detailed written submissions to the inquiry, critiquing the report. They include two of SA’s biggest private hospital groups — Netcare and Mediclinic — and the country’s biggest medical scheme administrator — Discovery — and Insight Actuaries.

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Sarah Barber, the WHO’s representative to SA, submitted a response to its critiques, in which she said the organisation stood by the report’s main findings.

All the submissions, except Discovery’s, have been published on the Competition Commission’s website ahead of the meeting it plans to hold on August 30 to probe the study in more depth.

In July, Hasa said it was concerned the report continued to be presented at face value despite the criticisms levelled at it. Hasa cited the Board of Healthcare Funders’ annual conference as the most recent example.

"We welcome all inputs into the healthcare debate but … these must be accurate, rigorous and tested. To fail these tests is to end up with inaccurate and potentially misleading inputs informing critical healthcare debates," it said on Tuesday.

Hasa said the OECD had failed to share data or respond to the criticisms levelled at its report.