PATIENTS paying up to £1.60 a minute calling their doctors’ surgeries are not being given the option to be called back despite work by NHS Sussex to help reduce charges.
Following a Parliamentary debate in January where ministers highlighted patients’ concerns about calling 0844 numbers to make appointments, NHS Sussex is working with surgeries to make sure patients are not charged premium rates and should be given the option to be called back.
However, despite work by the trust, Francis Szilagi, a patient at Park Surgery in Albion Way, Horsham, said he has spent £1.60 a minute on the phone to the surgery.
Mr Szilagi, of Oak Road, Southwater, said: “I am a pay as you go mobile phone user.
“These days, when I want to make an appointment it is cheaper to actually go there on the bus from Southwater and make an appointment in person.
“Depending when they answer the phone and how good the person dealing with you is, it can cost £5 to £6 - a lot more expensive than calling [the County Times] office, for instance.”
In the Government debate on January 25 health minister Simon Burns said that patients should not pay more than what it would cost to call a landline number, including when calling from mobiles.
If this were the case Derek Goodhall, of Farhall Crescent, Horsham, would not have paid more than £2 for a 17-minute call to his surgery.
He said: “I recently had the need for an urgent appointment with a doctor at our local surgery, and this involved making two calls, as on the first call I was advised that there were no further emergency appointments available on that day, and to call again on the following day, as soon after eight o’clock as possible, in order to secure a place on the list.
“A maximum of four minutes was spent actually talking to the receptionists during these calls, and as I pay 3p a minute for local calls, the cost would have been 12p.
“My telephone bill shows that I have been charged £1.36 for 17 minutes, and £1.04 of this was for on-hold time.
“Bear a thought also for the other 35 patients who were also on-hold initially during my second call.”
A spokesman for NHS Sussex said they are working with surgeries to help patients.
He said: “None of our practices are in breach of their contracts by having an 0844 telephone number.
“We are assured that all our practices which use an 0844 number offer a call-back system. We regularly audit this.
“We have made practices aware of alternative telephone systems to the 0844 number and continue to encourage them to consider these alternatives as their contract term ends.
“We take our responsibility on this matter very seriously and are currently working with our practices to review what other steps, over and above the contractual requirements, can be taken to ensure there are no barriers to patients contacting their GP practice.”
Mr Szilagi said Park Surgery has never offered to call him back.
“The surgery has never mentioned this, and when I once asked them to call me back because my credit was low they refused. My partner called them this morning and the receptionist said ‘we don’t do that’,” he said.
A spokesman from Park Surgery said: “We are currently looking into establishing a local number for patients to contact us on.
“While we are advised by BT that our 0844 number costs around 2p less per minute than the local rate for the vast majority of telephone contracts, establishing a local number alongside this will ensure that patients have the option to use an alternative number should they choose to do so.
“If a patient has a specific issue and needs to be called back we would expect our staff to be considerate to their needs.”
Original comment on story:
Comment: Please view the Department of Health Website where The Secretary of State for Health states that Premium Telephone Numbers by Doctors Surgeries are prohibited. Rodney Uckfield - GPs (Premium Rate Telephone Numbers)
8. Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): What guidance his Department issues on the use by GP surgeries of premium rate telephone numbers. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): The Department has amended the general medical services regulations to prohibit GP practices from using telephone numbers that charge patients more than the equivalent cost of calling a geographical number to contact the NHS. Since April this year, GPs have not been allowed to use a number that charges patients more than the cost of an equivalent geographical call.
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Mark Pawsey: I have been contacted by a constituent who is a patient at a practice in Rugby that uses telephony based on 084 numbers. My constituent is concerned about the additional charges incurred by patients when contacting the surgery by phone, particularly by mobile phone. Will the Minister update the House on the work of the Department in ensuring that GP surgeries do not use such numbers unnecessarily?
Anne Milton: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I understand that five GP surgeries in NHS Warwickshire use 084 numbers, and that the primary care trust has been assured that patients using those numbers are not charged more than the cost of using an equivalent local number. It is absolutely clear that there is no distinction between landlines, mobiles or payphones. The directions are very clear that patients should not expect to be charged any more.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (LabCo-op): I, similarly, have three GP practices that use those telephone numbers. I have made extensive contact with my local PCT about this, but it did not seem to know what to do. Can the Minister assure us that the clear advice she is giving here today will be distributed around the health service, so that we can put an end to this?
Anne Milton: The Department is very clear, and the general medical services contract makes it very clear, that GPs are not allowed to do it. There are a number of options open to GPs who already have such telephone contracts, such as calling patients back, altering the contract arrangements or, indeed, paying the costs themselves. Ash - Uckfield. (Rodney Ash)