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GP surgeries could be forced to ditch 084 numbers

By Steve Nowottny

GP surgeries could be banned from using more expensive 0844 and 0845 telephone numbers, it was announced today.

Ministers have launched an England-wide public consultation on the use of the numbers, which can cost patients up to 20p a minute to call from mobile phones – and warned ‘it is not an option to leave things as they are.'

At least 800 practices in England are thought to use the numbers – with as many as one in three surgeries doing so in some parts of the country. Numbers beginning with 084 are also used by some hospitals and primary care trusts.

GPs using the numbers argue that it enables them to provide patients with a better service, and cuts down the time taken to contact surgeries by routing calls more effectively. But ministers fear patients are being unfairly over-charged.

Health minister Ben Bradshaw said: ‘We are concerned that some people are paying above the odds to contact the NHS. For people on low incomes who need to contact their local doctor or hospital regularly, these costs can soon mount up.'

‘We know that some people value the additional service that 084 numbers can offer, but others object to being charged more than the cost of a local call to access NHS services. We receive regular complaints from members of the public and parliamentarians about this.'

The Department of Health had originally been due to rule on the issue in March, but delayed the publication of its report pending ‘information gathering'.

The BMA welcomed the consultation - but defended the use of 084 numbers.

Dr Laurence Buckman, GPC chair, said: 'Where 084 numbers are used by the NHS there is good evidence that patient satisfaction has improved, with better and quicker access to services because of the additional functions within the telephone system.'

'We believe the best way forward is for the government to work with the telephone industry to make sure the companies that supply these systems move to local-rate call arrangements with NHS organisations. After all it was the government that encouraged many GPs to move to 084 numbers in the first place to help meet their access targets, and many surgeries will now be tied into long-term contracts.'

But consumer lobbyists expressed impatience at the further delay.

Campaigner David Hickson said: ‘It is intolerable that three months is being wasted getting the obvious answer to this silly question about one tiny aspect of the NHS.'

‘For the NHS to be ‘free at the point of need' all of these bodies must be required to cease using numbers beginning 0844 or 0845, because part of the payment made by patients when calling these numbers is provided as income or subsidy to the service provider.'

The public consultation seeks views from patients, GPs, NHS bodies, the telecommunications industry and other interested parties, and closes on 31 March 2009.

GP surgeries could be forced to ditch 0844 and 0845 telephone numbers GP surgeries could be forced to ditch 0844 and 0845 telephone numbers

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