Price rise for bedside calls at N&N and QEH

MARK NICHOLLS A bedside phone service provider - which covers two major Norfolk hospitals - is raising charges to patients calling home to loved ones by a massive 160pc from Wednesday.

MARK NICHOLLS

A bedside phone service provider - which covers two major Norfolk hospitals - is raising charges to patients calling home to loved ones by a massive 160pc from tomorrow, it has emerged.

Patientline, which is aiming to head-off a poor financial performance, has brought in charges which will see calls by patients dialling out rise from 10p to 26p a minute.

One of the hospitals affected, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, has written to Patientline chief executive Nick Winks protesting at the price rise and demanded a postponement of the increase pending further discussions. It also believes the price rise contravenes existing agreements on the price of outgoing calls.

Other hospitals in the region that use Patientline include the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King's Lynn, Ipswich Hospital and Addenbrooke's at Cambridge.

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. Its share price has tumbled form 24.5p in April 2006 to just over 2p today.

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Patientline, which provides bedside telephone, TV and internet services for patients, has 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 recommendation to the Department of Health that it “review all aspects of the installation and operation of bedside telephone and entertainment systems in hospitals.”

The DoH review should include the way in which the cost of providing these services appears to be borne disproportionately by friends and family calling patients 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 charges to family and friends was “extortionate.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb described the outgoing calls price rise as “outrageous.”

“The company cannot justify those level of charges and it goes completely against the claim when it started that for patients ringing out there were reasonable charges and it was only for people ringing in that the cost really bit. Now it is both ways. Hospitals, in my view, should do everything thee can to block these increases,” he said.

A Patientline spokeswoman confirmed that the charges would rise from 10p to 26p a minute.