NHS England said it was ‘actively reviewing' use of 0844 numbers by practices and warned that it will ‘act’ on its findings. GPs said NHS England had warned them they were in breach of their contract by continuing to use these phone numbers.
In the 2010/11 GMS contract, the DH banned practices from signing up to new phone lines that charge patients more than local rates.
But GP leaders said some practices still hold contracts with service providers lasting up to seven years, and would face severe financial penalties if they ended their contract early.
Dr Deborah Colvin, chair of City and Hackney LMC, told the UK LMCs conference last week that her practice was under pressure from NHS England to stop using its 0844 number.
She said: ‘In order to get out of our contract it would cost us £60,000. We’ve explained that to the patients, we’ve explained that to NHS England, but we are being told that we are in breach of our [NHS] contract.
‘We put the 0844 number into our surgery a couple of years ago in order to increase the number of lines for patients so that they would get through easier, having been reassured that it would be cheaper for patients to ring us that way.'
However, GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said that practices are not in breach of their NHS contract for having 0844 numbers and advised those affected to also provide a geographical number for patients who request one.
‘Practices can’t be bullied into making a change before their contract is up,’ he said. ‘Some of the contracts last up to seven years.’
Dr Vautrey said that in many parts of the country, practices had been encouraged to use 0844 numbers by the DH or PCTs but have since been under pressure over the past few years to stop using them. ‘This is no fault of practices that they have found themselves in this situation,’ he said.
An NHS England spokeswoman said: ‘NHS England supports guidance from the DH that GP practices should not enter into any new contracts for telephone services that would mean patients pay more than the cost of a geographical call to their practice.
‘GP practices were required to review existing arrangements by 1 April 2011. This remains the case. We are actively reviewing the extent of use of 0844 numbers and will act upon our findings as and when this work has been carried out.’