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GPs in legal battle over phone charges

A GP practice is embroiled in a legal row involving its PCT and local MP over a new phone system that charges patients extra to call the surgery.

Patients of the practice in Ongar, Essex, have to pay 0.3 pence extra per minute as part of a deal struck by the GPs to pay for the £15,000 system.

But after a patient complained to Epping PCT and local MP Eric Pickles, the trust is claiming the move breaches GPs' terms of service.

A statement from Epping PCT said: 'The PCT does not regard charging patients more for telephone calls to access their GP as acceptable.'

Mr Pickles has also raised the issue in a series of questions to Health Secretary John Reid.

Medical defence experts have backed the GPs, arguing that they are not demanding a fee for treatment and so are not breaching terms of service.

A further 20 practices that have the same systems could also be affected by the case.

Dr Hugh Taylor, a GP at the surgery, said its old system could not cope with the volume of calls and the agreement with supplier NEG meant it could be replaced free of charge.

'We urgently needed to get the system improved,' he said. 'We have got this system at no charge but the technical breach might be that patients have to pay more to access us.'

He added that the practice felt it was being used as a 'test case'.

Under the deal, the surgery uses an 0870 national rate number, which charges BT callers a maximum of 6.5 pence a minute, instead of a local number.

Dr Stephanie Bown, head of medical services at the Medical Protection Society, challenged Epping PCT to identify which paragraph of the terms of service the practice had breached.

She said: 'Paragraph 38 says a GP may not demand a fee for treatment but are we saying the provision of a phone service comes under this? Patients have to pay already and if they choose to contact the surgery by phone they incur a cost.'

Sales director for NEG Richard Chapman said the company was talking to the practice about using a local-rate 0845 number instead.

He said: 'It's not a premium rate, it's 0.3 pence extra. From mobiles there is no difference and out of hours it is cheaper as patients only have to call one number.'

By Susan McNulty

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