The Department of Health has announced that the use of premium rate phone numbers in the NHS is to be banned.
The DH said it would enforce the ban through negotiating changes to the GP contract and issuing directions to primary care trusts and NHS trusts. GPs and other providers will still be able to use 084 numbers but their suppliers will not be able to charge more than the cost of a local call.
NHS Direct will be allowed to continue to use its 0845 number pending the DH’s current investigation into use of a national three digit number for urgent, unplanned care needs.
The announcement on the future of 084 numbers, originally due at the end of April, follows a DH consultation on the use of 084 numbers in the NHS and campaigning to see the numbers banned.
The DH said almost 3,000 members of the public responded to the consultation, demonstrating the strength of feeling on the issue.
Health minister Mike O’Brien said the government had been concerned that some people were paying more than the cost of a local call rate to contact the NHS and that feedback had backed the ban on any number which was more expensive to call.
O’Brien added: “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 hospital the cost of the call will be no more expensive than if they had dialled a normal landline number.”
The DH said its decision did not prohibit ‘revenue sharing’ but would allow a marketplace to evolve where 084 numbers compete alongside 01, 02 and 03 numbers but where patients paid no more than the cost of a local call.
The DH said it would work with the BMA’s GP committee over the next few months to integrate the legislative changes into the GP contract. About 1,500 GP practices in the UK are thought to use 084 numbers as well as other NHS organisations including some PCTs and hospitals.
The BMA said the changes were fairer for patients. Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the BMA’s GP 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.”
However Dr Vautrey said telephone systems using 084 numbers offer services which patients find helpful and the GPC would like to see more phone companies include 084 numbers in the comprehensive call packages they offer customers to increase the benefits for patients.