No cure when the doctor overcharges: Patients trying to query fees have nowhere to go

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are overcharged by a doctor or consultant there is nowhere you can go to query the fees - apart from a court of law, which will run up further costs.

With more and more people opting for private medicine, there is an alarming gap in the protection offered to patients who have been overcharged.

If solicitors inflate their bill you can get it 'taxed' by the Law Society. With accountants there is a fee arbitration procedure. But if a medical specialist overcharges, you are knocking your head against a brick wall to find someone to query it.

A spokesman for the General Medical Council, the disciplinary body for doctors, says: 'A complaint has to involve serious professional misconduct. The GMC would not become involved in the charging of fees for consultations and operations.

'There is no arbitration scheme. Presumably it is open for a patient to pursue the matter through the court.'

The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, publishes guidelines for consultants' costs. However, with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigating doctors' fees, the BMA is at pains to stress that the guidelines are only 'very rough'. It has no arbitration scheme to deal with overcharging complaints.

'There is nothing at all,' a BMA spokesman said. 'It is just like questioning a bill for work done on your car. You are sort of on your own.'

Querying a car repair bill is much easier. You can at least get comparative quotes from different garages. Ringing up a selection of Harley Street consultants to ask how much they would have charged for your operation is a different ball game.

Julian Stainton, managing director of Western Provident Association, the third largest medical fees insurer, says: 'It is quite ludicrous. A specialist has the legal right to charge you what he likes but there is no appeal procedure.'

In Guernsey, where you do not have to pay for a hospital bed, but do have to pay for consultations with general practitioners and specialists, there is an appeals procedure. But it is little known, even in Guernsey.

Jean Elwin believes she is the first person to use the procedure. Her two- year-old daughter Rebecca has a metabolic complaint. When she was admitted to hospital a specialist charged pounds 370.44 during a 24-hour period.

Before she got to the appeal hearing Mrs Elwin had already managed to get the bill reduced by pounds 84.88. At the hearing it was agreed that her insurer, Bupa, would decide the final figure and the specialist's practice would pay if there was any shortfall in her insurance cover.

Mr Stainton says: 'The system in Guernsey is at least a start. There is a clear need for a system in Britain that gives consumers - patients - at least some sort of minimum rights. Ideally it should be enshrined in consumer protection legislation.'

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