By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News
Complaints about helpline NHS Direct have risen by 50% since the end of 2006 as it struggles to answer calls and offer speedy advice, its figures show.
NHS Direct was set up in 1997
In March the 24-hour health helpline had 1.89 complaints for every 10,000 calls - over twice the target level - after four successive monthly rises.
The Patients Association said people were now turning to them for help.
But NHS Direct, which had about 400,000 calls in March, said the situation was improving after a major reorganisation.
Hundreds of posts were lost and 12 of its 50 centres closed last year as the service tried to make cuts as part of the NHS-wide push for savings.
The service was set up in 1997 to help give advice to people on how to deal with symptoms and to direct them to the correct place in the event of an emergency.
Performance data from NHS Direct showed that in recent months the service had struggled to answer calls or deal with non-urgent cases quickly enough under its targets agreed with government.
It now means that the number of complaints it is receiving has risen by 50% in the last four months.
The 1.89 complaints per 10,000 calls in March meant there were still under 100 complaints for the month, but the figure is more than twice the target of 0.75 complaints per 10,000 calls.
It is also recognised that it is likely that many more people have been unhappy with the service, but have not lodged formal complaints.
A spokeswoman for the Patients Association said: "We are getting a lot of people ringing our helpline who are unhappy with the help they have got from NHS Direct.
"It is scandalous that this service is not doing what it should.
"Some are even saying NHS Direct has referred them to us. We are a charity, we should not be picking up the pieces for a publicly-funded service."
A spokesman for NHS Direct said: "We have dropped below the planned targets, but the service is now improving and getting near to the standard it should be.
"There was a major reorganisation last year and it has taken time for that to bed down."