Headlines: February 25th, 2005

Hospital trusts, family doctors, and other organisations providing local health care are to be banned from using telephone numbers that charge patients excessively for calling NHS services in their area. The ban will mean patients will not have to pay for expensive premium and national rate calls to access local services.From April, NHS organisations will not be able to set up new premium and national rate telephone numbers for patients contacting local services. The Department of Health says the ban will be enforced through changes to the relevant legislation and guidance, including GPs’ contracts and directions to NHS Trusts. It will also apply to NHS opticians and doctors’ out of hours service providers. Dentists will be covered by the ban but in their case the relevant legislation will take longer to change and is not expected to take affect until the summer.

It is estimated that just under 300 GP practices have set up national rate lines, which charge up to 7.5 pence per minute for calls from patients making appointments or requesting repeat prescriptions. The only special service numbers the health service will be able to use in future will be freephone numbers or those offering a guaranteed low rate call, such as 0845 or 0844 numbers.

The Health Minister, John Hutton, said GP practices currently using national rate lines would be expected to change these to ‘lo-call’ numbers, under an arrangement between the Department of Health and the principal supplier. The Department will make funds of about 500 pounds per practice available for the switch and it will work with Primary Care Trusts to identify which practices will be entitled to the additional funding.

Mr. Hutton said, “Sick people and their families should not be asked to pay over the odds to contact local NHS services. The use of premium and national rate telephone numbers is an unfair additional cost for many NHS patients.” The move has been welcomed by the Patients’ Association. Its chairman, Michael Summers, said they had been contacted by many patients because calls were so expensive, particularly when surgeries were busy or engaged.