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NHS England to crack down on GP use of 0844 phone numbers

NHS England has announced it will crack down on GPs use of premium phone numbers, and has asked local area teams to identify practices still using them.

Last year MPs called for GPs to stop using 0844 numbers in their practices, after it was found a significant numbers of practices were still using the premium phone number despite new rules introduced by the DH from April 2011 that stated the costs of calls to practices must not exceed those of local calls.

NHS England confirmed the DH guidance on keeping the cost of calls to the practice equivalent to the price of a geographical call still stands. They have asked local area teams to review PCT documents to check which practices are still using 0844 numbers and will ‘act upon’ their findings in due course.

An NHS England spokesman said: ‘NHS England supports guidance from the Department of Health that GP practices should not enter into any new contracts for telephone services that would mean patients pay more than the cost of a geographical call to their practice.

‘GP practices were required to review existing arrangements by 1 April 2011. This remains the case.

‘NHS England was established on 1 April 2013 and as part of our new role we are actively researching the extent of use of 0844 numbers and will act upon our findings as and when this work has been carried out.’

But the GPC said that practices can use 0844 numbers within the rules as they are sometimes cheaper than georgraphical numbers for some patients, and that the local area teams have ‘more important things to do’ than looking for practices using them.

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘As long as practices are following the guidance, they should not be bullied by anyone. They might want to review their contract when it comes to an end, but local area teams have more important things to do than this.’

He added: ‘We have to remember that the problem is not so much the system practices use but the system providers. These days people have mobile phones and phone contracts which charge more for certain numbers. The system as a whole needs to change. It’s those providers that are ripping people off, not practices.’

Longstanding NHS campaigner Mr David Hickson, who has compiled a database of practices still using premium numbers, said that in September almost a thousand practices were still using 0844 numbers.

He said that the provisions of the 2010 contract amounted to a ban on 0844 numbers, and so practices using them were in direct breach of contract.

He said: ‘0844 numbers are only cheaper for a minority of patients. By contract GPs have to look at the arrangement as a whole for patients. So GPs basing it on a minority of patients who incur a penalty for using geographical numbers isn’t acceptable.

‘NHS England are to be congratulated. They have immediately recognised there is a problem. I’m pleased they have taken serious steps and will take action.’