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Friday, 20 January 2012

Parliament to debate 'Use of 084 telephone numbers in the NHS'

Bob Ainsworth MP for Coventry North East will be leading a debate on this topic in Westminster Hall, at 12:30 next Tuesday, 24 January. A government minister will reply.

This will cover the fact that nearly 1,300 NHS GP surgeries in England continue to use these expensive numbers, despite revisions to their contracts which should have brought this to an end by 1 April 2011.

I hope that Mr Ainsworth, and other MPs who may contribute, will stress the need for the government to make the situation clear to all, and in particular to ensure that officers of the Primary Care Trusts fulfil their duties properly by enforcing the terms of the contracts on their GPs.

The key points are as follows:

As telephone tariffs stand, there is no 084 number that can be used in the NHS.
The NHS is universal in its scope and available to all on equal terms. There will always be some who will pay more to call 084 numbers. (See current tariff examples.)
GPs tied into long term telephone system arrangements must still comply.
If necessary, they can change to the 034 equivalent of their 084 number.
This would mean that they will henceforward incur the full cost of their chosen telephone system, without the benefit of subsidy at the expense of patients.
The revised contracts demand that they "take reasonable steps" to ensure that patients do not pay more - this step must be considered to be "reasonable".
Migration to 03 is an option offered by all telephone service providers, including that responsible for most of these cases. (See this note.)
The terms of the GP contracts are clear, but are made confusing by those who oppose their intention and purpose.
Local NHS officers, who have to enforce the terms of the contracts, have not been able to overcome resistance from those who argue that patients should pay some of the costs incurred by GPs and other NHS providers. This is the privatisation of the NHS, which many fear that the government is prepared to tolerate.
If the government truly believes in the principles of the NHS, now and for the future, then it must intervene to ensure that these principles are fully respected - if necessary, by strong enforcement action against those who continue to breach them.

GPs may be quick to point out that some NHS hospitals and other NHS bodies also use these numbers, in breach of equivalent Directions issued to them. I argue that these bodies are not only in breach, but are making enforcement of similar requirements unnecessarily difficult. (See the list in my blogging - "NHS Bodies in Breach ...".)

Friday, 6 January 2012

GPs using expensive telephone numbers - the "escape route" is revealed by NEG

Many NHS GPs use expensive 084x telephone numbers as a means of subsidising the cost of their telephone system at the expense of patients. (See my database of cases and a map.) Since April 2011, those in England and Wales have been doing so in breach of their NHS contracts.

Many claim that use of a 084 number is essential to support use of a telephone system called "Surgery Line", provided by NEG, part of The Daisy Group. I am now delighted to be able to report that NEG now confirms on its website - Different Number Ranges - that this is untrue.

It is particularly significant that NEG confirms that Surgery Line may be used with 034 numbers.

Calls to all 03 numbers are charged at no more than the equivalent cost of a call to a geographic number, from all types of phone and including the terms of packages.

034 numbers are however special. They are only available to existing users of 084 numbers for the purpose of migration to the equivalent number, e.g. 0844 477 1799 to 0344 477 1799.

This means that:

all existing users of "Surgery Line" can take advantage of NEG's offer for them to migrate to 034 numbers,
to comply with their NHS contracts, whilst retaining all the benefits of the Surgery Line system.

It has been claimed that NEG imposes contract termination penalties on its customers if they cease use of their 084 number. As it now clearly offers use of numbers from a "migration only" range, it would be absurd for it to penalise those who wish to take advantage of this offer.

It must be noted that those who migrate to 034 will be incurring the full cost of the "Surgery Line" system, as they lose the benefit of subsidy at the expense of patients, which funds the system when a 084 number is used. It is however perfectly normal for NHS GPs to meet the costs of running their surgeries using only the NHS funding provided for the purpose. It would be absurd for them to pretend that meeting the cost of their chosen telephone system is "unreasonable".

I am delighted that Daisy Group, the owner of NEG, has finally made this very positive move.

I hope that this news will be swiftly communicated to:

•    all "Surgery Line" users

•    their patients, and

•    the local NHS bodies who enforce GPs compliance with their NHS contracts.

This option of migration has always been available, but it is now directly offered to Surgery Line users.

I also hope that the BMA, which has shown great interest in this topic, will now advise its members that this option of migration is now explicitly made available, rather than urging them to claim that the cost which would be incurred is "unreasonable".

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