GPs ‘break rules’ on high-rate phone numbers

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CAMPAIGNERS have accused GPs of breaking new rules which prevent them using higher-cost telephone numbers.

Family doctors were required to take “reasonable steps” from April 1 to ensure patients did not pay more when contacting them than they would to make an equivalent geographical call.

But a survey by protesters opposed to the higher-cost telephone lines claims more than 1,000 GP practices are still using higher-rate 0844 and 0845 numbers which they say carry premiums of as much as to 41p a minute.

In a survey across England, campaigners said the highest proportion of GPs using the lines was in South Yorkshire. Their figures show 91 out of 114 surgeries in Sheffield failing to switch to alternatives.

There were 41 practices in Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield using the numbers, 32 in Leeds, 15 in Bradford, 15 in North Yorkshire and 23 in East Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire, according to the survey.

David Hickson, who has led a long-running campaign on the issue, said primary care trusts (PCTs) needed to put pressure on doctors.

“We need PCTs to ensure that GPs do not breach the principles of the NHS by charging patients through use of expensive telephone numbers,” he said.

“They have much work to do before the NHS can move forward.

“The principle of access to NHS services free at the point of need cannot be compromised.”

Fellow campaigner Dave Lindsay, of the campaign, said he was concerned many GPs were flouting the ban on using “rip-off” numbers which charged more than landline numbers.

“The business rate numbers have no place within the NHS which is free at the point of need,” he said.

“The Government should move to stamp out this practice as it pauses to consider its reforms programme to our health service.

“If it does not, then we shall know that the new NHS is to be one where patients will pay more for a higher quality service.”

Under new rules introduced by the NHS, doctors can still use 084 numbers but must make sure patients are not charged more than the equivalent cost of using numbers with a standard geographical dialling code.

A NHS Sheffield spokesman said: “We want to make sure that patients making telephone calls to their GP practice in Sheffield have the benefit of calling a number that only charges the equivalent geographic rate.

“In Sheffield that means patients in the future could benefit by either calling a 0114 or a 03 number.

“We are committed to working with GP practices to make sure these new telephone numbers are set up for patients as soon as possible.

“We are working with phone providers to come up with the best solution for those practices who haven’t already got a 0114 or a 03 number. We want to reassure patients that we are working hard to make sure that these changes happen as soon as feasible and we will make sure that patients know about any changes to their GP practice phone number.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “NHS organisations remain free to use non-geographical number ranges such as 084, providing that patients are not charged more than the equivalent cost of calling a geographical number to do so.

“It is up to PCTs to ensure that GP practices comply with this in line with their standard contract.”