Company defends charges for calling GP practices

The company behind controversial 084 numbers for some GP surgeries in Warwickshire has insisted it is not breaching NHS guidelines.

But a campaigner has called for an end to charging patients for calls - and warned that patients calling their surgery from mobile phones or landlines other than BT should check their charges.

Clarendon Lodge, Brese Avenue, Priory Medical Centre, Southam Surgery and Abbey Medical Centre all use Network Europe Group’s Surgery Line system to manage calls from patients, who can pay up to 41p if they call from some mobile phone providers.

Campaigner David Hickson believes charging patients for phone calls breaches the principle that the NHS should be free at the point of need.

But NEG says it complies with the NHS contract in that callers from BT landlines pay no more than the 5p a minute they would for any national rate call.

Mr Hickson believes numbers that cost more than a geographical call are in breach of surgeries’ contract with the NHS and has called for GPs wanting a non-geographical number to switch to a free 03 service.

Mr Hickson said: “It’s very much a point of principle, especially in the current situation in which people are worried about a shortage of money.”

Practices that use the system receive a portion of the cost of the call, which is used to pay for the equipment used in setting it up.

Surgeries contacted by the Courier insisted they had not breached their contract - and the firm which supplies the numbers said it complied with all legislation. Primary Care Trust NHS Warwickshire said it was happy that no surgeries broke rules.

An NEG spokesman said the firm’s service complied with the terms of the contract between the NHS and GP practices.

He added it was “impossible” under current law to set the cost of a call from a mobile phone, as the cost from BT landlines was the only one regulated by telecoms watchdog Ofcom.

And he added that if GPs switched to charity numbers, the cost would be borne by the practice and ultimately the taxpayer.

He quoted British Medical Association guidance on the subject, which states that the call rates which patients are charged depend on their mobile phone service provider and that is a matter for individual members of the public to ensure that they are happy with the terms and conditions of the mobile phone arrangements that they enter into with their provider.