Vet prescribing costs could be capped by watchdog – BBC News

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A cap on veterinary prescription costs is among the measures the UK Competition Authority is considering as it investigates the sector.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is continuing a formal investigation into the veterinary market amid concerns that pet owners are paying too much for treatments.

The company said it had heard from people struggling to pay vet bills and not always knowing the best treatment options for their pets.

The British Veterinary Association said the regulation of the sector was “woefully outdated” and welcomed the review.

According to the CMA, estimates suggest that as many as 16 million households in Britain have at least one pet.

The Office for National Statistics has estimated that the cost of veterinary and other pet services has risen by around 50% since 2015, far higher than the overall rate of inflation.

The watchdog launched a survey last year asking people if they were worried about paying too much, and received 56,000 responses from pet owners, vets and charities.

Earlier this year, concerns were raised that pet owners may not get basic information such as price lists online and were not always told the cost of vet treatment before agreeing to it.

The CMA is now launching a formal investigation, which means it can intervene directly in the market.

The regulator outlined three tips for pet owners when seeking treatments:

  • Look beyond the nearest vet, rates and services vary per practice
  • Ask if there are other treatment options
  • If the treatment is not urgent, you may consider purchasing medication elsewhere, for example from an online pharmacy or a pet store

“The message from our veterinary work to date is loud and clear: many pet owners and professionals have concerns that require further investigation,” said Sarah Cardell, CEO of the CMA.

“We’ve heard from people who are having difficulty paying vet bills, may be paying too much for medications and don’t always know the best treatment options available to them,” she said.

The CMA said local veterinary services are worth £2 billion to £2.5 billion a year, but when other aspects such as cremation, specialist treatments and medicines are taken into account, the total value of the sector is estimated at £5.7 billion per year.

The competition authority highlighted how the sector was increasingly dominated by larger companies and how this could limit consumer choice

There are around 5,000 veterinary practices in Britain, but since 2013 around 1,500 of these have been taken over by six major corporate groups.

They are CVS, Independent Vetcare Ltd, Linnaeus, Medivet, Pets at Home and VetPartners.

Four of these six tend to keep the name and brand of an independent practice when purchasing it, which the CMA says can create an ‘illusion of competition’ for consumers as they try to shop around to find alternative practices.

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The watchdog said the investigation would look at:

  • Whether consumers received the right information to make informed decisions
  • If a limited choice of veterinarians in some areas affects pet owners
  • The level of profit earned by veterinary companies
  • Whether veterinary companies have the incentive and ability to limit consumer choice when offering treatments or services
  • Whether market regulation needs to change

Possible solutions could include forcing companies to provide certain information to consumers, imposing maximum prescription costs and ordering the sale or breakup of companies.

Malcolm Morley, senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), told the BBC’s Today program that the trade body was “very enthusiastic” about the research and had been working closely with CMA in recent months.

“Some of the points the CMA is raising are issues we have been raising for a long time,” he said.

“The regulations for vets and veterinary practices are woefully outdated and not fit for purpose.”

Mr Morley added that consideration should also be given to purchasing treatments online.

He said many independent veterinary practices were forced to buy drugs from wholesalers at prices higher than what consumers face when buying from an online pharmacy.

Gemma Attenborrow, a dog owner from Birmingham, told the BBC that she had spent almost £10,000 on spinal surgery for her French bulldog Bali.

She said she felt like she had to pay an “extreme amount” for average service.

Ms Attenborrow said pet owners may be too scared to go to the vet because of the high bills and it is “unfair” for both the animals and the owners.

Abuse of veterinarians

However, the CMA also heard from vets who said they sometimes faced abuse from pet owners over what they perceived as high fees.

While they acknowledged that costs have increased, they also said interactions with pet owners were also affected by factors such as:

  • Owners ‘don’t understand the true cost of veterinary care’, partly because people compare it to NHS treatment, which is free at the time of use
  • Many new, inexperienced pet owners since the pandemic
  • pet owners who do not have insurance
  • Veterinary programs on TV raise expectations “with costs rarely, if ever, discussed.”

BVA chairman Dr Anna Judson said: “Since the CMA first announced their review, veterinary teams in practice have found themselves on the receiving end of some very unpleasant and often abusive behaviour.

“This is unacceptable and we urge everyone to remember that vets are human and are often not responsible for the pricing structures within a practice.”

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