NHS bosses will investigate the extent of GP surgeries’ use of ‘expensive’ 0844 numbers, which are still in force at some practices in Bradford, despite being against Government guidelines.
NHS England confirmed this week it is looking into how widely the non-geographic number is used by surgeries and will ‘act’ on its findings after warning a group of three GP practices in Warrington they would breach their contract if they introduced such a number for their patients.
Earlier this month, the Telegraph & Argus revealed a number of GP surgeries across Bradford continue to flout Government guidelines by using the 0844 prefix, which can leave people racking up large bills when trying to get treatment or advice.
About 14 per cent of surgeries in the district have 0844 numbers – which can charge up to 41p a minute from a mobile phone – more than two years after the Department of Health ruled patients should not have to pay more than a standard geographic charge to call their doctor.
The Warrington practices, of the CCA Partnership, had planned to introduce an 0844 number yesterday, but made a U-turn after NHS England intervened.
They will ‘delay’ introducing their new system, instead choosing to operate with a geographic number.
David Hickson, of the Fair Telecoms Campaign, which has been campaigning about the issue, said: “At last, it seems that NHS England is starting to make it clear that its contracted GPs cannot use 0844, or indeed any 084 numbers, because they are almost always more expensive to call than geographic numbers.”
Department of Health guidelines say NHS organisations remain free to use non-geographical number ranges such as 0844, providing that patients are not charged more than the equivalent cost of calling a geographical number to do so.
One surgery in Bradford, Ashwell Medical Centre in Manningham, said it was ‘locked’ into a contract with a telephone system provider that would cost the salary of a nurse to break.
A spokesman for NHS England said: “We support guidance from the Department of Health that GP practices should not enter into any new contracts for telephone services that would mean patients pay more than the cost of a geographical call to their practice.
“NHS England was established on April 1, and as part of our new role, we are researching the extent of use of 0844 numbers and will act on our findings as and when this work has been carried out.”
Earlier this month, Ofcom announced it will begin forcing businesses to tell customers exactly how much they will be charged when they use 0845 and other non-geographic numbers.
Mobile phone users will also no longer be charged to dial freephone 0800 numbers, as they are at present, under plans published today by the telecoms regulator.
Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive, said: ‘Consumers need to have far more transparency about the price they are going to pay for calls so that they can make more informed choice and so competition can work more effectively.”