Page last updated at 06:58 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 07:58 UK

NHS premium rate calls are banned

NHS hospital staff
084 numbers are increasingly being used within the NHS

The use of premium phone rates for people contacting the NHS in England is to be banned, the government has said.

It comes after 3,000 people responded to a public consultation about the use of 084 numbers in the NHS, and 90% said calls should be charged at local rates.

The 084 numbers will not be banned but calls to hospitals or GP surgeries must cost no more than a standard call.

Doctors' leaders welcomed the change, saying patients should not be penalised because they are ill.

However, the ban would not apply to the cost of making phone calls from hospital beds, an NHS spokesperson said.

Campaigners against higher tariff 084 numbers, increasingly used within the NHS, say they go against the founding principles of the NHS which is that it is "free at the point of need".

Call costs can vary but some 084 numbers can cost as much as 40p per minute from a mobile, while others are set at the same rate as a standard call.

But an additional problem for patients is that many phone companies do not include 084 numbers as part of their inclusive packages. In particular, mobile phone users often have to pay extra to call the numbers.

We have been concerned that some people are paying more than the cost of a local call rate to contact the NHS
Mike O'Brien, Health Minister

Doctors had argued the use of 084 numbers enable them to offer patients a better service, such as a queuing system rather than an engaged tone.

It had been proposed that the numbers should be banned completely but the Department of Health said that would simply lead to the use of other higher tariff numbers

Instead they are taking moves to ensure that numbers used in the NHS do not cost the patient more than the cost of calling a geographical number.

Ofcom has previously said it would like public sector organisations to switch from 0845 numbers to a special suite of 03 numbers, which would be charged at the same rate as calling a normal landline number.

The Department of Health said there were plans for NHS Direct to move to one of the 03 numbers but its 0845 number would continue for now.


Health minister Mike O'Brien said: "We have been concerned that some people are paying more than the cost of a local call rate to contact the NHS.

"For people on low incomes, and for those who need to contact their local doctor or hospital regularly, these costs can soon build up.

"We want to reassure the public that when they contact their local GP or hospital, the cost of their call will be no more expensive than if they had dialled a normal landline number."

In Scotland, fewer than 4% of practices charge premium rates for calls but the government is planning to issue advice on pushing down costs for those that do.

The British Medical Association said the proposals for England to limit the cost of 084 numbers to that of local calls was the fairest way forward for patients and practices.

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the BMA's GPs committee, said: "Patients who call their surgery because they're ill shouldn't be penalised because they have to call an 084 number, so we're pleased that the phone companies who supply these lines to practices have agreed to ensure that their tariffs are in line with local charges.

"There are many added benefits that telephone systems using these numbers have and which patients find helpful, for example better and quicker access, so it's good to see that the government has recognised this and has not gone for a complete ban on the use of these numbers."

Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients' Association, said: "It's great that the Department of Health has listened to patients. Asking them to pay extra costs for phone calls was unreasonable.

"Patients have had to wait long enough for the ruling. Let's hope the change happens as quickly as possible."

But David Hickson, a phone charges campaigner, said he believed the government would have trouble implementing the proposals.

"The government has failed to realise that the only way to ensure people only pay a normal charge is by prohibiting numbers that might charge more," he said.

"The only way to do it is to prohibit 084 numbers."

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