ACT News

Ambulance operator calls for competition in patient transport

A private ambulance operator looking after people at Summernats is frustrated at its dealings with the ACT government, accusing it of continuing to stall on bringing competition into patient transport.

The situation reached a head in October when Ambulance Service Australia says it was forced to turn down a dying man's request to see the coast for a final time because while it can transport patients in NSW, it is not allowed to do so in the ACT other than for events such as Summernats.

Director Michael Rigo said allowing private operators to transport patients between hospitals, for specialist appointments and to nursing homes would free up the government ambulances and paramedics for emergencies and save money.

Calvary Hospital is keen to use Ambulance Service Australia for non-urgent patient transport, and Mr Rigo said the deal would save the government $700,000 a year.

It would also mean a faster response time, with patients needing a transfer or medical appointment not having to wait for a public ambulance to come free.

But he has so far failed to win approval or even a formal response to his proposal.

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"We keep getting hamstrung by the government and it's certainly not what we would see as a friendly place to do business," Mr Rigo said.

In 2015, the NSW government moved to allow private operators to offer non-emergency patient transport, but in the ACT patient transfers are all done by the government-owned ACT Ambulance Service. Mr Rigo said the public system struggled to deliver patient transport services efficiently and often ended up using paramedics in patient transport cars, tying up emergency staff in non-emergency work.

Calvary Hospital expressed frustration as far back as 2013 at lack of progress, and Ambulance Service Australia has now taken on lobbyist Peter Conway to push the cause.

​Mr Conway and Mr Rigo made a competition complaint in January last year, in which they said the ACT Ambulance Service not only had an effective monopoly on patient transport, but was also a key player in making decisions about applications from competitors. That gave the ambulance service acess to detailed information about competitors and a significant competitive advantage in any tendering process.

Mr Conway said he had yet to receive a formal response to the complaint. After a meeting with Chief Minister Andrew Barr's office in February 2015, Mr Barr had written to him, telling him he understood a formal response to the application to provide non-emergency transport had been sent in February. But Mr Conway said the response had never arrived and requests had failed to uncover it. 

Mr Barr told him then that the government "has previously assessed that there was not a strong case for opening this market to competition". But in 2015, it would look at "a range of options for reform in the provision of emergency and health services" and would revisit the issue then.

With 2015 now at an end, no progress has been made.

A government spokesman this week said the ACT Ambulance Service operates "a highly efficient and productive non emergency patient transport service".

But the government still intended to look at the question in light the federal competition review, and the views of Ambulance Service Australia would be considered then, he said. He did not offer a timeframe.

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