THE boss of a GP surgery which has opted to introduce a more expensive 0844 number has said hard-up patients should "negotiate a better deal" for using their mobile phones.

Handsworth Medical Practice in Highams Park has been heavily criticised for penalising people who are ill at a time when household budgets are being squeezed.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley recently said GPs should not be using 0844 numbers which generate revenue for the call receiver but three surgeries in Chingford and Highams Park use the dialling code.

Parkhouse Surgery in Cavendish Road, Chingford, shares the same number as Handsworth Medical Practice.

Ridgeway Surgery in Mount Echo Avenue, Chingford, also uses the code.

The surgeries will earn a percentage of the charge for using a mobile, which can be as much as 40p per minute.

This compares to a cost of up to 30p per minute for mobile users to call a local landline.

But Handsworth practice manager Josie Camplin defended the move.

She said: "The number was changed because we had to have a new telephone system and that’s the number we were issued.

"It’s cheaper than most rates on BT landlines. [Patients] need to negotiate a new mobile phone package."

However, Sandeep Chritsten, chairman of the Highams Park Society, said he struggled to understand the logic of the decision.

He said: "Patients on a low income with no landline must use their mobiles and it's so expensive to call from those.

"Also the option to speak to a receptionist is the last one and so people are forced to spend more time on the call."

The Guardian made three calls to the surgery on Thursday and twice waited for more than five minutes to speak to a member of staff.

Oliver Shykles, chairman of the Highams Park Forum, said people with health problems and the elderly would suffer most.

He added: "It seems people are being penalised for being more ill than others.

"When the call is answered by a machine it means you wait even longer."

Ward councillors Darshan Sunger and Sheree Rackham both criticised the move.

Ridgeway Surgery's practice manager, Yvonne Davey, refused to discuss the issue with the Guardian.