ACCESS Patients Association 'uncomfortable' with national rate lines

Published: 03/03/2005, Volume III, No. 5945 Page 9

Ministers have announced a ban on GPs using national rate 0870 telephone numbers following complaints that the service acts as a deterrent to accessing the NHS.

Around 300 surgeries have a 0870 'surgery line' phone number and an answering service provided by Network Europe Group. Calls are charged at 6.73p per minute - more than double the rate of an average BT local call.

HSJ revealed (news, page 12, 13 January) concerns by the Patients Association about the use of 0870 numbers. The association had received complaints from London patients who said they resent paying extra. Patients from Leicestershire also contacted HSJ and said they felt exploited - one woman waited 23 minutes to be put through.

Health minister John Hutton said last week that by April, practices using national rate telephone lines will be expected to change these to low rate numbers.

'People should not pay over the odds to contact local NHS services, ' said Mr Hutton. 'The use of premium and national rate telephone numbers is an unfair additional cost for many patients. That is why we are taking this action today.' The ban will be enforced through changes to the relevant legislation and guidance, including revised contracts for GPs and directions to trusts. It will also apply to NHS dentists, opticians and GP out-of-hours service providers.

Patients Association policy director Simon Williams said: 'This is great news. It is not just the principle of GPs making money out of patients calls; it also proves an added barrier to accessing services.

The whole idea is just wrong.' GPs say they do not take any money from the service and plough any profits raised into practice improvements.

Mr Williams also attacked the use of 0870 numbers by private out-ofhours provider Primecare. He added:

'Paying this extra rate in what might be an emergency situation just makes me feel uncomfortable.' Primecare operations director David Randall said that it had no alternative. 'Where PCTs chose to use 0870 numbers we have to use them to provide out-of-hours cover.

If there is a change in the regulations we will offer [local rate] 0845 numbers but one of the problems is communication and patient awareness. There are an awful lot of leaflets and information out there that contain 0870 numbers that we have no control over.' NEG chief executive Richard Chapman said: 'The company is ready to introduce a new system that would halve the cost of calls.' He defended his company's system, saying it was 'fantastic' and represented good value for money, as callers to 'normal' GP phone lines take longer to get through. He said much of the hostility was simply due to the lines being 'stigmatised' as a premium rate service when they were not.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, chair of the British Medical Association's GPs committee, said: 'Some of the GP practices involved were encouraged to switch to 0870 systems by their primary care organisation.'