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Bundeskartellamt eliminates competition restraints in the distribution of hearing aids

Date of issue: 24.11.2011

With its decision against the Federal Guild of Hearing Aid Acousticians (BIHA) the Bundeskartellamt has removed a significant obstacle to competition in the distribution of hearing aids. Up to now the BIHA has offered health insurance funds more favourable conditions for hearing aids only if they promise to accept hearing aid retailers as the sole providers. Alternative distribution channels such as the dispensing of a hearing aid directly by the treating physician were thus excluded. The Bundeskartellamt has now prohibited this practice by the BIHA.

The President of the Bundeskartellamt, Andreas Mundt, stated: "The decision was necessary to allow alternative hearing aid providers access to the sales market and to stimulate competition in favour of the health insurance funds and statutory health insurance patients. This opens up substantial savings potential."
The BIHA represents around 90% of all hearing aid acousticians in Germany and, according to Book V of the German Social Code, is tasked with negotiating conditions for the sale of hearing aids with the health insurance funds and health insurance associations on behalf of its members.

The Bundeskartellamt has established that in its negotiations with different health insurance funds since 2008, the BIHA had tied the allowance of more favourable special conditions for the supply of hearing aids to patients without co-payment to the condition that the insurance funds do not conclude any other supply contracts, in particular with providers dispensing hearing aids via a shorter supply channel. The term "shorter supply channel" is used in this case to describe a situation where a patient procures a hearing aid directly from his ENT specialist and not from a hearing aid retailer. The distribution via a shorter supply channel requires the conclusion of specific contracts between the suppliers and physicians with the health insurance funds and is subject to provisions under the Social Code. Some providers have been trying to start up in this low-cost distribution concept for years. Several health insurance funds accepted the BIHA's demands. In this way competition for different channels of distribution of hearing aids to end users was limited without objective justification, to the detriment of competitors and statutorily insured patients.

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