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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The NHS "Free at the point of use" - in future ? - now?

NHS GPs are continuing to adopt expensive telephone numbers - the latest goes live tomorrow!

When there are more than 1000 to choose from, it seems unfair to highlight a single case, but it serves as a good example.

On Wednesday 11 May, the West Pottergate Health Centre in Norwich will adopt its new 0844 telephone number.

This will enable a new telephone system to be largely paid for by patients, through the "revenue share" that applies to these numbers, causing callers to pay more than for an ordinary call.

This is NOT the "NHS free at the point of use" to which Minister of State, Simon Burns MP, claimed to be committed in parliament yesterday [see end of para].

In its published information about the change, the practice encourages patients to " use a landline", acknowledging that calls from mobiles cost more than the cost of an equivalent call to a geographic number (this is not conditional, it is true in every case).

Patients are not however advised to avoid inclusive packages, landline providers other than BT or public payphones, although the same is true for these. It is only those who would incur a penalty charge, for making a daytime geographic call outside the terms of their Call Plan, who would not pay more to call this number.

The NHS is a universal service and GPs are required to have regard to " the arrangement as a whole" when considering the cost of calling them, relative to that of an equivalent call to a geographic number. This practice will therefore (admittedly) be joining the many others who are in clear breach of the terms of their NHS contract.

Hoping that patients will change their type of telephone, provider and type of Call Plan so as to keep the practice inside the terms of its contract, does not reflect the purpose for which patients expect to receive advice from their GP.

Responsibility for enforcing the terms of the contract rests with Primary Care Trusts, described by Mr Burns as one of the "layers of unnecessary management" that he is removing [see start of para], through the upcoming reforms.

I comment,

"We may think it right that patients in England should pay to receive improved health services - if we do, then we must say so, and stop confusing ourselves and each other with meaningless slogans.

"If England wants to opt out of the NHS because it cannot afford the overheads, wants patients to be given true "choice" and aims to produce better outcome statistics than can be obtained from a taxation-funded system that treats everybody - then let us be honest about it.

"I am a joint-owner of 'our NHS' and I will continue to fight to keep England within it."

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