Two GP surgeries have recently introduced 084 telephone numbers despite a decision by the Department of Health to ban the use of premium rate numbers in the NHS.
Director of the fair telecoms campaign, David Hickson, has highlighted the cases of Northgate Village Surgery in Chester and Park Surgery in Kent in his ongoing fight against discriminatory telephone charges in the NHS.
Use of 084 numbers has been a focus of controversy for several years. The DH announced in 2009 that it would ban their use following a consultation that attracted more than 3,000 responses.
GP contracts have been amended to say that practices: “shall not enter into, renew or extend a contract or other arrangement for telephone services unless it is satisfied that, having regard to the arrangement as a whole, persons will not pay more to make relevant calls to the practice than they would to make equivalent calls to a geographical number.”
Hickson said that calls to 084 numbers invariably cost more than equivalent calls to geographic numbers.
This is because the call charge includes a “service charge” of around 5p per minute, which provides a subsidy towards the cost of the practice telephone system, he added.
Northgate Village Surgery in Chester and Park Surgery in Kent have both introduced 084 numbers in recent months, though patients of Park Surgery can still call 012 numbers attached to their individual surgeries.
“These two recent cases represent clear breaches of the simple requirement not to use such numbers,” said Hickson.
Park Surgery practice manager Hannah Walker said the practice’s contract says: "having regard to the arrangement as a whole, persons will not pay more to make relevant calls than they would to make equivalent calls to a geographical number."
"We feel that as we are offering an alternative geographic-rate number, our ‘arrangement as a whole’ fulfils this criterion," she said.
Northgate Village Surgery’s practice manager told EHI he could not comment on the decision to introduce an 084 number, but he is talking to his primary care trust about the issue.
EHealth Insider asked the British Medical Society for its position on 084 numbers. The association argues that practices that had these numbers in place before the DH issued its new guidance do not have to change or cancel their contract if that would incur a financial penalty.
However, “all practices will be expected to become fully compliant with regulations once their existing contracts are up for renewal or they wish to contract with a different provider."
Hickson’s database shows there are more than 1300 GP practices still using 084 numbers.