Practices could be stopped from using more expensive telephone numbers such as 084 in England, under proposals set out in a public consultation today.
Some people are currently having to pay more than the equivalent cost of a local rate call when they telephone their GP or other NHS services if they have adopted a number from this range. A number of NHS organisations, although still a small minority, have started using 084 numbers in recent years.
Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said: "We are concerned that some people are paying above the odds to contact the NHS. For people on low incomes who need to contact their local doctor or hospital regularly, those costs can soon mount up.
"We know that some people value the additional service that 084 numbers can offer, but others object to being charged more than the cost of a local call to access NHS services. We receive regular complaints from members of the public and parliamentarians about this."
The Department of Health has issued guidance to the NHS on the use of 084 numbers on several occasions. The consultation will seek a solution that combines the valued extra functions and level of service 084 numbers provide, but at the cost of a local call.
The 14-week consultation is seeking views from: users of 084 numbers; those who provide services using 084 numbers; NHS organisations that do not use 084 numbers; the telecommunications industry; and other interested parties.
Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)
"I fully support the 084 numbers our practice has used one through Surgery Line for the past three years. We have a fully automated and much improved service, and the cost to the patient is now similar to BT calls. We did have a few complaints at first, mainly from unemployed patients calling from mobile phones" – Marion Brown, Enfield
"I think it was unnecessary to switch to 084 numbers instead of local ones. As it takes so long to select all the options to get to speak to someone, the call has been in operation for a few minutes and charges are mounting up. In this current climate with money being tight it is unfair to cause the public more distress" – Anne Short, location withheld
"I am the manager of a practice that has used a 0844 number for the past two years. We have been sent five copies of the consultation booklet. I requested a further 100, as it is only fair that I give our patients the opportunity to be involved. The DH Orderline will only allow me to order 10 at a time. I wonder if the final decision will be based on the responses of the small pocket of patients that are so against these numbers that they make the effort to hunt down a reply form? Much like the extended hours fiasco being based on the opinions of the vocal few!" – Mark Leonard, Northampton
"I'm sure patients could be excused for being confused bearing in mind NHS Direct uses an 084 number! Perhaps the DH should make clear what the charge is for a call to NHS Direct before they start a panic" – David Winter, Leicestershire
"We were going to adopt this but held off because of the furore. The only people that pay over the odds are mobile users, and they can get their contract amended to allow for this. What about reimbursement for practices who have to contact patients on mobiles? We would have gained nothing by switching to these numbers, other than the provision of a much better telephone system which, on the meagre (yes meagre) profits the practice makes from nGMS, we cannot afford to contemplate buying such a system (or leasing it) though we could if we leased it through the Surgery Line scheme. This government, with one breath, tells us we have to work and act like a business, and when we do they don't like it. They are the biggest hypocrites since the last Labour government" – Name and address withheld