GP practices that continue to use 084 numbers will be in breach of contract, NHS England has warned.
Local area teams will be in contact with GP practices who are continuing to use expensive 084 numbers without taking “all reasonable steps” to stop patients using them.
Since April 2010 new rules have been in force which mean GPs can no longer enter into phone contracts which cost more than a local phone call of the same duration.
The Department of Health told GPs that they should take all reasonable steps to end or change any existing contracts that did not comply with the rules.
However, many practices have entered into long-term agreements, meaning patients weer continuing to pay more money. An audit carried out earlier this year shows that around 8% of practices continue to use 084 numbers.
Dr Mike Bewick, NHS England’s deputy medical director said: “This is a health equalities issue. There is a real risk that more financially-secure patients will wait on hold to get an appointment, no matter how much it costs them, where a poorer patient will be forced to hang up because they can’t afford the cost of the call, and not receive treatment because of that.
“For the same reason, a two-tier service of an 084 number with queuing and messaging facilities, alongside a local number that relies on a receptionist picking it up, is not a reasonable alternative. The NHS should not offer different levels of service dependent on means to pay.”
Dr David Geddes, NHS England’s head of primary care, said: “Research showed that some GPs felt unable to change things, because of real or perceived contracting problems, so we are aiming to bust some of the contracting myths and to support practices to make sure their patients get the best service.
“If GPs are not doing everything they can to change, then they are not providing an equitable service and are in breach of their contracts. We expect our area teams to use their local understanding and authority to make sure appropriate action is taken wherever GPs are not making this a priority.
Since its audit earlier this year, NHS England has worked with the Fair Telecoms Campaign to examine the real and perceived barriers to GPs in changing their telephone systems, finding that many GPs understood they would be charged significant amounts of money for cancellation or change of contracts.
In fact, leading providers of GP telephone systems including Daisy Communications (providers of Surgery Line) have agreed to move GPs to geographic-rate 03, 01 or 02 numbers with no contractual penalties.
NHS England will, through its area teams, continue to monitor GPs’ progress, and will audit practices’ telephony services again in 2014.
David Hickson, of the Fair Telecoms Campaign, said: “The Campaign has worked with GPs, commissioners and phone companies for some time over this issue. Where an 084 number is used, patients are effectively paying for their GPs’ telephony services, and this is not acceptable.
"The majority already respect the principles of the NHS by complying with the rules that were introduced more than three years ago – but those who are not complying must be held to account."