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Health Direct applauds labour U Turn as NHS to end premium rate telephone call charges for patients

Health Direct has long campaigned for the end of a stealth tax on booking doctors appointments through the use of premium rate sex charge telephone calls.

Charges under which patients pay more than the cost of a local call from a landline are being scrapped in England after a consultation.

As we reported in 2007, many NHS organisations use numbers starting with an 0844 or 0845 prefix, which can be up to 30p a minute more expensive to call than a standard local number.

Patients will still dial 084 numbers to get through but tariffs will be adjusted to ensure that they pay only for the cost of a local call, ministers said.

Mike O’Brien, the Health Minister, said: “We have been concerned that some people are paying more than the cost of a local-call rate to contact the NHS. For people on low incomes, and for those who need to contact their doctor or hospital regularly, these costs can soon build up.

“We want to reassure the public that when they contact their GP or hospital, the cost of their call will be no more expensive than if they had dialled a normal landline number.”

A letter will be sent to NHS organisations informing them of the changes this week, while amendments will be made to GP contracts over the coming months.

Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, said: “Patients who call their surgery because they’re ill shouldn’t be penalised because they have to call an 084 number, so we’re pleased that the phone companies who supply these lines to practices have agreed to ensure that their tariffs are in line with local charges.

“Combining the benefits of 084 numbers with an assurance that they won’t cost more than a local phone call is the best solution for patients and practices.”

Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients’ Association, said: “It’s great that the Department of Health has listened to patients. Asking them to pay extra costs for phone calls was unreasonable. Patients have had to wait long enough for the ruling-let’s hope the change happens as quickly as possible.”

Whilst the U turn spin is welcome, no definitive date was given for the time by which these stealth tax charges should be abolished.

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