DESPITE receiving a warning from health authorities over three months ago, medical centres throughout the area still using premium rate 0844 numbers.

In July, The Guardian reported that Chigwell Medical Centre in Fencepiece Road, Willows Medical Practice in Manford Way, Chigwell, and Ongar Health Centre in Banson’s Lane were all charging their patients extra to call them by using 0844 numbers instead of landline numbers.

0844 numbers cost 5p to call from landlines, and can cost up to 40p to call from mobile telephone networks.

Patients on low incomes with pay-as-you go mobiles said they were often left unable to ring their doctor’s surgeries to make appointments because long caller queues ate away their credit.

Earlier this year Marie Alexis, 41, spent £10 of mobile credit calling Loughton Health Centre to make appointment for her sick 8-year-old daughter.

Following pressure from patients the surgery reverted to a normal landline number soon after.

She said: “These surgeries should be listening to their patients and moving faster to change their numbers.

“It is just unfair that people who can’t afford it have to pay more to call the doctor.”

Allen Warner, 64, of Copperfield, Chigwell, is a patient at Chigwell Medical Centre.

He said: “I think it is outrageous they have not changed these numbers yet. It feels like part of a gradual erosion of the NHS.

“My old doctor in South Woodford has an 0844 number but has a landline number patients can use as well. I do not know why they don’t just use that system.”

Jackie Hammond, 54, lives in Copperfield, Chigwell.

Her daughter, Kate, was unable to afford a call to the Chigwell Medical Centre when she fell seriously ill and had to be driven there to make an appointment in person.

Mrs Hammond said: “I think it is appalling to use that kind of number for a doctor’s surgery.

“Someone should have taken action by now. It is not on.”

A spokeswoman for NHS West Essex said: "In April 2010 the Department of Health issued a contract variation relating to the use of these numbers. West Essex PCT wrote to GP practices to advise them that they were required to undertake a number of actions evaluating their use of 084 numbers in order to comply with the new legislation.

"However, this legislation does not include a mandatory requirement not to use 084 numbers. The PCT has requested evidence from all GP practices with an 084 number which demonstrates that they have evaluated their current provision. All the relevant practices have provided this information and therefore have met their contractual obligations.

"The GP Contract does not prohibit the use of 084 numbers, and therefore the PCT is unable to ban their use. The PCT does not encourage the use of 084 numbers and will be working with practices to ensure the best telephone system is in place for both the practice and its patients.”

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