HEALTH chiefs have vowed to investigate GP surgeries who force patients to use premium rate telephone lines.

Worcestershire Primary Care Trust has launched an immediate investigation after your Worcester News revealed at least two practices - St John's House surgery in Bromyard Road, Worcester and Ombersley Medical Centre - were using expensive 0844 numbers.

Paul Bates, chief executive for the PCT, said the trust had no power to ban the numbers.

"The PCT itself cannot ban these numbers and cannot impose restrictions outside the national GP contract arrangements," he said. "Nevertheless, we are going to investigate their use and we will work with local GPs to identify alternative options which GPs will be encouraged to use.

"The PCT is aware that some practices in Worcestershire do use 0845 and 0844 numbers. We do not approve of this but cannot stop it."

Since we published our story on Saturday, the practice manager at Ombersley Medical Centre has said she is flabbergasted and gutted" to discover the phone lines are costing patients more.

Some calls to 0844 numbers can cost 40p a minute from a mobile and 4p more a minute than an ordinary landline.

But Debbie Weston said she had been led to believe the calls were at a local rate by their supplier.

"People need to be aware that as far as we're concerned we're not expecting patients to pay any more than they should be. I was flabbergasted and gutted by the article," she said.

St John's House surgery in Bromyard Road, Worcester, has declined to comment It is estimated that 1,200 practices nationwide now use 0844 numbers despite criticism from watchdog Ofcom.

In 2005 the Department of Health banned 087, 090 and 901 numbers - at the time 0844 and 0845 numbers were regarded as low cost call rates and were not banned.

But Mike Foster, MP for Worcester, said the Government had no power to stop GPs using expensive lines because they were private practices.

"I would urge the practices to put a stop to these premium rate calls immediately," he said. "It's not as if GPs are short of a bob or two - they can't argue about that. Funding for health care has risen tremendously over the last 10 years."

Worcester City Councillor Margaret Layland, a former patient at St John's House surgery, welcomed the PCT's stance.

She said: "I hope that the doctors surgeries involved will change their telephone supplier and get back to a standard rate line. I think patients will be pleased that the PCT are taking it up."