Patients face hike in bedside call costs

Patients are set to be hit by a massive increase in charges for making calls from bedside phones at Norfolk's main hospital.Service provider Patientline plans a 160pc rise in call charges - from 10p to 26p a minute - from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Patients are set to be hit by a massive increase in charges for making calls from bedside phones at Norfolk's main hospital.

Service provider Patientline plans a 160pc rise in call charges - from 10p to 26p a minute - from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

However, N&N chiefs have sent an angry letter to the bedside entertainment service provider saying the rise is unacceptable and demanding the increase plan be thrown out. It also believes the price rise contravenes existing agreements on the price of outgoing calls.

The rise was due to come into force today but has been postponed pending further discussion between the N&N and Patientline, which is struggling against a poor financial performance

The increase brought angry reactions from patients, watchdog groups, hospitals and MPs.

Last night North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who is Liberal Democrat health spokesman, called it a “tax on health and calls home to loved ones” while Norwich North MP Dr Ian Gibson urged patients to boycott the service and said the issue was worthy of a Parliamentary debate.

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Writing to record the N&N's objections to the increase, Anna Dugdale, the hospital's director of resources, told Patientline: “Our primary responsibility is to the best interests of our patients and we are therefore especially concerned that Patientline now propose to increase the cost to patients of outgoing telephone calls from the bedside.

“When the trust formally evaluated the various tenders for the bedside system, the cost of outgoing calls was specifically taken into account in deciding which company should be awarded the concession. A price of 10p/min was quoted repeatedly by Patientline during the tender evaluation process and the proposal to increase the cost of outgoing calls by 160pc without consultation is unacceptable.”

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital at King's Lynn uses Patientline but at this stage has not been asked to raise prices. However Addenbrooke's Hospital at Cambridge is due to enter pricing discussions with Patientline later this week.

Patientline has seen its operating loss grow from £3.5m in 2002 to £25m in 2006 and its borrowing soar from £9m to £86m in that time.

Patientline, which provides bedside telephone, TV and internet services for patients, has previously been under fire for the levels of charges for incoming calls for relatives - 39p a minute off-peak or 49p a minute at peak times.

It was the subject of an investigation by regulator Ofcom, which ended in January 2006 with a call for the Department of Health to review the operation of “bedside telephone and entertainment systems in hospitals.”

The price of calls was also investigated by Patient and Public Involvement Forums in the East of England last year in the Fair Talk campaign which concluded that it believed the 49p charge to family and friends to dial in was “extortionate.”

A spokesman for the Patient and Public Involvement Forum for the N&N yesterday said: “Many bed-bound and sick patients will not be able to go to those public areas of the hospital where the trust have now stated mobile phones may be used and they could therefore find this punitive increase denies them access to friends and relatives at a time when they most need support.”

Ian Semmons, chairman of the Norfolk-based National Patients Network, added: “There is no justification for the increase and we back the N&N in calling on Patientline to re-think the charges.”

Patientline said the new charges are linked into changing pricing packages which will offer cheaper TV rates and are being rolled out across the UK this month. It also points to the ongoing cost of investment in the systems.

A spokeswoman added: “Patientline has yet to make a profit due to this heavy investment programme and in order to make the reduced costs for TV, internet and games economically viable we have had to increase the cost of outgoing calls to 26 per minute from 10p for the time being.

“While Patientline had expected to be able to announce new telephone charges the unfortunate fact is that discussions with the Department of Health have been protracted, to the extent that Patientline has had to postpone a firm decision on reductions.

“The alternative to interim price changes would potentially have been to remove services in parts of some hospitals, which Patientline is reluctant to consider as it wants to maintain access and choice for all patients.”