A DEBT-ridden NHS trust earned more than £100,000 in revenue last year from controversial 0844 telephone numbers, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.
Patients ran up higher-than-expected telephone bills after dialling the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs hospitals in Wakefield, Dewsbury and Pontefract.
Campaigners say the number is significantly more expensive than an ordinary geographic STD code although managers dispute the costs.
The use of the non-geographic telephone numbers, particularly by GP surgeries, has caused anger among patients for a number of years.
Mid Yorkshire has four different 0844 numbers which earned it £102,000 in revenue in 2012-13 – a significant increase from the £66,000 in 2011-12 and £60,000 in 2010-11.
Bosses at NHS England have this week sent a letter to family doctors using 084 numbers urging them to get rid of them – prompting an angry reaction from GP leaders who claim they are being “bullied”.
David Hickson, of the Fair Telecoms campaign, said it was clear that both GPs and hospitals were continuing to charge patients for access to services which was in breach of fundamental NHS principles.
He said most callers ringing a standard geographical number would pay nothing providing it was within their call contract but those ringing 084 numbers typically faced significant extra expenditure as these fell outside the terms of call deals.
“The simple fact of the matter is that calling 0844 is in almost every case vastly more expensive – that’s how they’re able to get a rebate out of it, it doesn’t come from thin air,” he said.
“The Department of Health issued directions – not guidance – to NHS bodies back in December 2009 giving them 12 months to get off expensive telephone numbers. Mid Yorkshire is one of a relatively small number which didn’t.
“NHS England has written to GPs, but it needs to get to the hospitals as well.
“Some GPs will look at the hospitals and say ‘They’re getting away with it, why can’t we?’
“They are in breach of directions issued by the Department of Health and they should stop using these numbers immediately.”
According to the campaign, people dialling an 084 number from landlines face a connection fee of up to 15p, plus charges per minute of at least five pence during the day on weekdays.
Calls on mobile telephones are typically significantly more expensive, particularly for pay-as-you-go customers who are most likely to be deprived.
Carole Langrick, chief operating officer at the Mid Yorkshire trust, said the NHS trust provided services at three hospitals across two districts, covered by two separate STD codes.
“Therefore, in addition to publicising our local rate phone numbers, people also have the option to contact us through an 0844 number covering all of our sites,” she said.
“The trust receives a one-off payment of 4p per call that comes into us via the 0844 numbers.
“The cost of calls to this number has not been raised as an issue with us, since they are charged at 5p per minute, which is cheaper than the standard BT landline rate of 7.6p per minute.
“However, it is vital that people are able to get in touch with us to access our services quickly and efficiently and we welcome any further feedback about this service so we can make it as effective as possible.”
The Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust uses an 0845 number but says it is considered “non-profit making”.
Lesley Hill, director of planning, performance, estates and facilities at the trust, said: “We originally introduced one phone number to make it easier, more convenient and simpler for patients to contact us.
“We do not receive any revenue from these numbers.”
The trust is among three in the region which also operate a freephone 0800 number which cost it £300 in 2012 for calls by patients seeking appointments for diagnostic tests.
The Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust also uses an 0800 number for all patients which cost it £22,000 in the three years to March.
South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs services in Middlesbrough and Northallerton, said it used free 0800 numbers for its patient advisory service at a cost of £500 in 2012.