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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The NHS Hospital Phone rip off continues, although with one less example

Aside from permitting the scandalous misuse of "personal numbers" for bedside phone services by appointed contractors, the NHS itself continues to use expensive 084 phone numbers (see details below). It also allows contracted GPs to do the same (see details below). An idea of the additional costs incurred is found from this table.

Following a public consultation in 2008/9, Directions from the Department of Health gave NHS bodies 12 months from 22 December 2009 in which to cease use of numbers that were more expensive than the cost of an equivalent call to a geographic number. The same requirement was imposed on contracted GPs with effect from 1 April 2010.

The possibility of future changes by Ofcom makes it impossible for the regulations to directly specify particular numbers or ranges. Under current conditions however,
the undeniable meaning of these regulations is a ban on use of all 084 numbers.

The hospitals and other bodies listed below continue to fail to comply, however I am pleased that one has just announced that it will now start to comply, over 15 months late.

The Switch

From 2 April 2012, the North East London NHS Foundation Trust will switch from 084 numbers onto 03 numbers. (see this press release)

All 03 numbers are guaranteed to cost no more than the cost of a call to a "geographic" 01 or 02 number. This applies to landlines, mobiles and payphones and covers the terms of call inclusive packages and bundles.

The switch from 084 to 03 is what many NHS Bodies and GPs should be doing, as this enables them to continue to take advantage of the features of what is known as "Enhanced Telephony", but without the cost being passed on to the caller. With 084 numbers telephone companies often take advantage of the situation by adding their own excessive premium as well. This is also prohibited on 03 numbers.

Some NHS Bodies have already done the switch, including NHS Blood and Transplant (0300 123 23 23) and the NHS Choose and Book Appointments Line (0345 60 88888).

The same is happening (again too slowly) throughout the public sector. A former hard case, the DLVA, has switched (0300 790 680x). Even HMRC has started the process with the Tax Credits helpline (0345 300 3900), although it retains all its other numbers on 0845 without offering the 0345 equivalents as an alternative.

The three Gloucestershire bodies listed below are intending to do the same switch within the next six months (up to 21 months late).

NHS Bodies that still fail to comply

The following list shows direct providers of NHS services still failing to comply with the effective ban on use of 084 numbers more than 15 months after the 12 month period of grace granted to them has expired.

In those cases marked with a "*" an alternative geographic number is published, however the 084 number remains in use and is sometimes even mistakenly commended as being cheaper to call.

Those shown in italics are known to have firm plans to comply.

The NHS Direct NHS Trust is exempted from the regulations. 0345 46 47 has been specifically set up for use as an alternative to 0845 46 47, but it refuses to make this available.

Barking, Havering and Redbridge Hospitals NHS Trust0845 130 4204 *
Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust0845 111 4000 *
Basildon & Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust0845 155 3111 *
North East London NHS Foundation Trust0844 600 1200
University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust0845 155 5000 *
Bradford and Airedale Teaching Primary Care Trust0845 111 5000 *
Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust0844 8110101 *
Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust0844 811 8110 *
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust0844 811 8111
Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust0844 811 5522
North Staffordshire Primary Care Trust0845 602 6772
Luton and Dunstable Hospital NHS Foundation Trust0845 127 0 127
Spire Parkway Hospital, Solihull (providing NHS services)0845 850 1451
Gloucestershire Primary Care Trust08454 221500
Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust08454 222 222
Gloucestershire Care Services (currently a NHS body)08456 598100
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust0845 155 1000
Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust0845 155 8155 *
Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (National Artificial Eye Service)0845 60 50 561
Marie Stopes International (many centres - providing NHS services)0845 300 3740

GPs that fail to comply

I publish a database, derived from NHS Choices for England, of those NHS GPs which use 084 numbers. This was recently presented as evidence in support of a parliamentary debate on the subject (see Hansard).

In responding to the debate, Simon Burns MP, Minister of State (Health Services), gave a strong indication that he does not share my view that our NHS is a universal service in which use of 084 telephone numbers is unacceptable. He referred to my published list of cases - http://tiny.cc/Burnslist and the associated table of call costs for leading providers of telephone call services (http://tiny.cc/GP084Costs) as follows:

"People say that there are 1,300 GP practices that charge more than they should; what they do not say is which practices they are, and they do not provide the robust proof that overcharging is happening …

"GP practices are adhering to the regulations and not costing patients more than they should. The PCTs vigorously enforce the regulations."

In my briefing for the debate, I referred to there being "nearly 1,300 surgeries", not "1,300 practices". I have never alleged that telephone companies are “overcharging”, they bill in accordance with their published tariffs.

By alleging that NHS GPs are allowed to levy any charge on NHS patients, Mr Burns was getting ahead of himself, as this aspect of the government's "NHS reform" plans has not yet even been published.

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