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'Rip-off' calls to hospitals under the microscope

Ofcom probes 'excessive' charges

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Ofcom is to probe whether people are ripped off for telephoning patients in hospital.

The comms regulator launched its own investigation today after receiving complaints from punters about having to pay up to 50p a minute to call patients.

Two companies - Patientline Ltd and Premier Managed Payphones Ltd - operate bedside phone systems that enable patients in hospital to make and receive calls. While making a call from hospital costs around 10p a minute, phoning a patient can cost 39p off peak and 49p for a peak rate call.

Ofcom is concerned that these charges are "excessive". It is also investigating whether a recorded message played at the start of each call is also contributing to the high cost of calling patients.

The regulator also plans to examine whether the exclusive agreements between the two operators and the NHS Trusts are "anti-competitive".

"Ofcom has received a number of complaints from consumers about the prices charged for making calls to hospital patients," said Ofcom today.

"Consumers have also complained about the duration of the recorded message that callers are required to listen to at the start of each call, which also attracts these charges."

News of the investigation has led to a slump in the share price of Patientline. At 3.13pm (BST) its shares were down 37 per cent (30p) at 51p.

In a statement, Patientline said it would "co-operate fully with Ofcom on this investigation, which the board believes will vindicate the terms of the licences and contracts required by the NHS, as well as Patientline's charges, which were specified in its licence agreement with the NHS".

Defending its position it said: "Patientline and the other licensees which were appointed as a result of a competitive tendering process are required to provide the entertainment and communication services at no cost to the NHS and to recover all of their costs from charges to users.

"The heavy capital costs of installing the systems, typically £1m per hospital, and the high costs of operating within a hospital environment dictate the level of charges required."

A spokesman for Premier also said the company intended to "co-operate with Ofcom". ®

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