Posted: Tue 12th Mar 2024

Watchdog to probe veterinary sector amid rising concerns

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

The competition watchdog has said that pet owners may be overpaying for medications and prescriptions.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a review of the sector last September to investigate whether the acquisition of smaller practices by larger chains has decreased consumer options and increased costs in the sector.

In 2013, nearly 90% of UK veterinary practices were independent, a figure that dropped to about 45% by 2021, as per the watchdog’s most recent data.

Additionally, the watchdog reported that the cost of household pet care has risen more rapidly than inflation, further burdening households during the cost of living crisis.

The CMA has now decided to embark on a formal Market Investigation following a consultation period.

Concerns raised are multifaceted, they include the lack of accessible pricing information for consumers, the potential for overcharging for medicines and treatments, and the growing dominance of large corporate groups in local markets.

This consolidation has raised alarms about reduced competition and choice for pet owners, potentially leading to higher costs and less transparency in service provision.

One of the most pressing issues identified is the sector’s regulatory framework, which has remained largely unchanged since 1966.

The current rules, which predate the ownership of veterinary practices by non-vets, have been deemed inadequate in addressing the modern complexities of veterinary business operations, including pricing practices and ownership transparency.

The CMA has outlined five principal concerns, prompting further investigation:

  1. Insufficient Information for Consumers: There’s a lack of accessible information for pet owners to make informed choices about veterinary practices or treatments.
  2. Lack of Price Transparency: Over 80% of vet practices checked don’t display pricing information online, leading to pet owners not shopping around due to assumed price uniformity.
  3. Unclear Treatment Costs: A significant portion of pet owners report not being informed about treatment costs upfront, including for tests, surgery, and out-of-hours care.
  4. Undisclosed Ownership and Weak Competition: Some companies own multiple local vet practices without clear disclosure, affecting consumer choice. Market consolidation has led to almost 60% of practices now being part of large groups, reducing competition and potentially limiting treatment options to higher-cost services.
  5. Regulatory and Economic Concerns: The current regulatory framework, deemed outdated, along with practices around medicine prescriptions and sales, may not adequately support competition or transparency. There’s also concern that vet practices’ significant earnings from medicine sales discourage informing pet owners about cheaper alternatives.

Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive of the CMA, underlined the importance of the veterinary sector to the UK, home to over 16 million pet owners.

She said: “We launched our review of the veterinary sector last September because this is a critical market for the UK’s 16 million pet owners. The unprecedented response we received from the public and veterinary professionals shows the strength of feeling on this issue is high and why we were right to look into this.”

“We have heard concerns from those working in the sector about the pressures they face, including acute staff shortages, and the impact this has on individual professionals. But our review has identified multiple concerns with the market that we think should be investigated further.”

“These include pet owners finding it difficult to access basic information like price lists and prescription costs – and potentially overpaying for medicines. We are also concerned about weak competition in some areas, driven in part by sector consolidation, and the incentives for large corporate groups to act in ways which may reduce competition and choice.”

“Given these strong indications of potential concern, it is time to put our work on a formal footing. We have provisionally decided to launch a market investigation because that’s the quickest route to enable us to take direct action, if needed.”

The British Veterinary Association (BVA), which represents more than 19,000 vets across the UK, responds to the CMA’s concerns:

BVA President Dr. Anna Judson, said:

“The veterinary sector has changed significantly over recent years and the Competition and Markets Authority’s proposed investigation provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on how both veterinary teams and practices can continue to provide clients with the best possible service.

“Rising prices are a concern for everyone but it’s vital to recognise there is no NHS for pets. Whether they are employed by corporate or independently owned practices, vets deliver highly specialised, tailored care for the UK’s pets and the cost is a fair reflection of investment in medical equipment, supplies and medicines, and the time vet teams dedicate to the care of each patient. At the British Veterinary Association, we’re keen to see healthy competition and consumer choice and so we are already taking steps to support vet practices to be more transparent both in terms of costs and practice ownership. It’s important that clients have as wide a choice of vet practices as possible so they can find a service that best suits the needs of themselves and their animals.

“We’re pleased to see the CMA acknowledging the need for reform of the outdated Veterinary Surgeons Act and for regulation of vet practices, something we have been calling for. As the legislation stands, it’s not fit for purpose and is failing both vet teams and clients.”

“It’s really important not to pre-empt the outcome of the CMA’s investigation. When the CMA launched its initial review, vet teams in practice found themselves on the end of really unpleasant, often abusive behaviour, which is unacceptable. It’s important to remember that vets enter this high-pressure profession out of genuine care for animals and will always prioritise their health and welfare. We will continue to engage constructively with the CMA by responding to this latest consultation and will continue to play a leadership role in driving positive change for vets and their clients.

The CMA has launched a 4-week consultation to seek views from the sector on the proposal to launch a market investigation. The consultation closes on 11 April 2023 at which point it will consider the responses received and a decision will be made on how to proceed.

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