Eastern Cape patients suffer as departments feud over money

A rusted mobile clinic with a flat tyre parked outside an Eastern Cape hosppital.
A rusted mobile clinic with a flat tyre parked outside an Eastern Cape hosppital.

Two Eastern Cape departments are at war over issues that include unpaid bills, mounting interest that runs to millions, cowboy driving, crashed and broken ambulances, towing bills and traffic fines.

The Eastern Cape transport department, which manages the 447-strong provincial ambulance fleet on behalf of the health department, has a list of complaints against the health department and its EMS paramedic division.

The health department has lined up its arguments against the transport department for tardy delivery of serviceable vehicles, and a failure to settle repair bills, meaning ambulances are retained by dealerships which do the repairs.

In the midst of it all, is a rapidly disintegrating ambulance service, which means the public suffers.

Bitter transport officials told DispatchLIVE that 48 of their ambulances had been written off in the last two financial years by Eastern Cape EMS employees.

DispatchLIVE can reveal that the health department has run up a debt of R171m in unpaid commercial leases which are managed by the transport department.

The health department confirmed owing the transport department R110m in the present financial year but did not elaborate.

Despite the interdepartmental friction, the transport department has to continue supplying the health department with ambulances to keep the emergency services’ fleet on the road.

The province has 447 ambulances in commission and of these, 38 are in for repairs and servicing.

Transport department spokesperson Khuselwa Rantjie said they billed the health department every month for R30m for a range of services. This bill had not been paid and now amounted to R171m.

Rantjie said: “On average the (department’s) monthly bill is R30m which mainly comprises the rental of vehicles (R12,542.514), direct fuel costs and utilisation. Other costs also factored in include invoicing for traffic fines, cost recovery, excess utilisation and interest on outstanding amounts. An amount of R171,606.901 is outstanding.”

DispatchLIVE heard several stories of residents in rural areas abandoning efforts to get an ambulance and having to hire bakkies at a cost of between R400 and R800.

Rantjie said 308 of the 447 ambulances could be used in rural areas.

She said it was difficult to provide accurate figures at any one time, on how many ambulances worked and how many did not and how many damaged vehicles languished in a workshop, because of poor reporting.

She said: “Currently 38 vehicles are in for servicing. None of the fairly new ambulances are affected. Generally, the delays in repairs are caused by several factors which include lack of servicing on time. Some vehicles are driven past their service intervals to the point of leading to abnormal breakdowns.”

She said drivers were being offered training.

She blamed EMS and health officials for failing to report that ambulances needed repairs.

She said the delay in reporting accidents from “the side of our client (health) department affects the repair process. Some vehicles sit at EMS bases for weeks before they are reported to the (transport) department”.

She confirmed there were negotiations to move the ambulance services to the health department.

“However, as things stand, this is the responsibility of the department of transport. As a service provider to all government departments, we are capable of providing this service,” she said.

“Where there are challenges, we are committed to finding solutions that will offer an improved, seamless service to all client departments and the communities they (departments) serve. This requires commitment and engagement from all parties concerned,” said Rantjie.