From: David Hickson – campaigner for the NHS
I quote a Media Release from the Department of Health - http://nds.coi.gov.uk/content/Detail.aspx?ReleaseID=413941&NewsAreaID=2.
"Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley said: ...
"We are also committed to improving patients' access to urgent care services and end the confusion over what services are available when. In doing so we will introduce a new single telephone number to direct patients to the right service, first time. This number - 111 - will be free to call and available 24/7. It will be launched in County Durham and Darlington this summer and in Nottingham City, Lincolnshire and Luton before the end of the year.”
Directions issued last December were supposedly intended to prevent NHS bodies from using numbers that cost patients more than the cost of a normal call to access NHS services, although this has been ineffective (see this briefing).
NHS Direct uses 0845 4647 for non-emergency enquiries and information and many other 0845 numbers, such as the Choose and Book appointments line 0845 608 8888. These cost most patients (i.e. those not calling from BT landlines) considerably more to call. The NHS Direct NHS Trust was exempted from these Directions because the introduction of 111 to cover these services was imminent.
Changes to the GP contract have also been introduced to prohibit use of expensive telephone numbers. These were resisted by the BMA, which believes that patients should pay extra for a better service. The BMA continues to attempt to block this move by now referring to meaningless assurances about the cost of telephone calls (see this briefing).
"I am surprised that the new government has decided to not only prohibit excess charges, but to use the NHS budget to meet the full cost of non-emergency calls to access the appropriate NHS service through the 111 number.
"Some callers can now make calls to ordinary numbers within packages, at no cost for the call. I have always argued that it is fair to both patients and the taxpayers who fund the NHS for non-emergency calls to be subject to 'normal' charges. It is only the surcharge incurred with 084 numbers that breaches the principles of the NHS.
"I hope that the operational and cost implications of perhaps the majority of telephone calls to the NHS being directed through this number have been properly considered."