Ambulances waiting outside a hospital. Photo: Paul Rovere
Ambulance Victoria is charging some patients $12 a minute for the time they spend queued up in ambulances outside busy hospital emergency departments.
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I also paid $120 for them to drive 10 minutes back to their base.
In what has been described as a scandalous policy, uninsured people in rural and regional areas are being billed for the increasingly long waits that paramedics endure before they can offload their patients into hospitals.
A Bairnsdale woman said she had been left struggling to pay a $2636 bill that arrived just days after she injured her knee in a bathroom fall in May and required payment within 14 days.
Leonie Ingle called Ambulance Victoria to request a breakdown of costs and was told she had been charged for 137 minutes of care, which she felt was too long.
It was only after making a complaint to the service that she realised her bill included $394 for a 33-minute delay for paramedics to transfer her into hospital, in a practice known as ambulance ramping. The case has exposed an Ambulance Victoria policy to charge rural and regional patients who do not have ambulance coverage an attendance fee of $986.74 plus $11.95 a minute for care and $1.16 for every kilometre travelled. Metropolitan patients who do not have coverage pay a flat fee of $990.41 for emergency transport.
In Mrs Ingle's case, her $2636 bill included $298.75 for paramedics to complete paperwork on her case and $119.50 for the 10 minutes they spent driving from the hospital back to their base.
The state opposition has pledged to review the hospital ramping charges for country patients if elected to government.
''It's scandalous that country ambulance patients are being slugged this secret charge for the Napthine government's failure to address the hospital ramping crisis,'' said opposition parliamentary secretary for health Wade Noonan.
Paramedics are spending more than 1000 hours each month ramped outside some Melbourne hospitals, with the delays having doubled since the Coalition government was elected in November 2010.
But the problem is also growing in country Victoria, with freedom of information data showing paramedics spent an average 503 hours a month ramped at Geelong Hospital, 314 hours at Shepparton Hospital and 283 hours at Bendigo Hospital between July and December last year.
Ambulance Employees Association state secretary Steve McGhie said charging patients for ramping was bizarre. ''Patients have no control over the gridlock at hospitals, yet they are being billed for it,'' he said.
Mrs Ingle, 37, has negotiated to pay the bill at $10 a week but said she believed some of the costs were unfair for a five-kilometre trip, particularly the $394 charge for the delay in paramedics handing over her case to hospital staff.
''Once we arrived at the hospital, I was essentially pushed in a trolley and left in a corner while [the paramedics] went and talked to people on the front desk. Is that fair? Not really,'' she said.
''I also paid $120 for them to drive 10 minutes back to their base. If I had an appointment with a lawyer I'd pay for the time he sat in front of me, not for the time he spent driving back to his office afterwards.''
In a letter to Mrs Ingle, Ambulance Victoria said fees were set by the Victorian Health Department and the service published details on its website ''as part of its educative role in the community''.
The website provides details of the attendance fee and costs per minute and kilometre, but does not state how times are calculated for each case.