By Ufrieda Ho
The Free State’s health care system – in tatters in so many places – also has one recurring nightmare: Buthelezi Emergency Medical Services, to whom public emergency services have been outsourced.
Why did the province’s services needed to be outsourced or supplemented in the first place? Secondly, was Buthelezi the best company to land the tender, and, thirdly, why are the on-going complaints about the company’s service – since it got the contract at the beginning of 2014 – falling on deaf ears?
According to the Democratic Alliance’s questions put to MEC Benny Malakoane in August 2014, there were 106 ambulance and emergency services vehicles in the province, 54 were being serviced in workshops and 28 were about to be added to the fleet.
That year, Buthelezi EMS had been given the tender that comprises 47 ambulances for district and regional hospitals. Its staff was expected to have “basic life support and intermediate life support” training. This tender was also intended for emergency inter-facility transport, not for call-outs. According to a health department response to a DA question, billing is done according to the skill level of the paramedic attending to the patient.
The contract is ongoing and by November of 2014 – the first 11 months of the contract was worth R32 million to Buthelezi.
Mariette Pittaway, DA member of the Free State Provincial Legislature said: “We still cannot understand why we were not servicing our existing fleet properly instead of spending that amount of money on an outsourced service.”
Pittaway says she’s never without fresh complaints about the services rendered by Buthelezi EMS. This is what worries her most.
“We hear about ambulances arriving to pick up sick babies without incubators. We also hear that some clinics and hospitals are left without their blood-pressure machines and other equipment because they’ve had to hand them over to the ambulance staff. We’ve also heard how hospitals wait for up to two hours for an ambulance to arrive and, in one incident, the excuse for a delay in Gastron was that the ambulance had a flat tyre and the driver had to wait for a spare tyre to arrive. This kind of things is just not acceptable,” says Pittaway.
A matron who spoke to Spotlight had her own horror stories that mirror Pittaway’s slew. She said they routinely give surgical gloves and drip kits to the Buthelezi EMS paramedics who are simply not properly equipped to do the job.
“They ask us for these basic things and then we get a bill for anything between R3500 and R4800 per patient,” she says.
In a letter written by a doctor in the Xhariep area more complaints emerge. The letter details how a Buthelezi ambulance, supposedly with an advance life support paramedic in attendance, was ordered for a 1,2kg premature newborn at 4pm. The ambulance arrived at 7pm to transport the baby to Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein.
“The paramedic was handed the baby for transfer, but they had the wrong oxygen cylinder. The ambulance had to drive back to Bloemfontein to fetch the correct oxygen pin index cylinder. Unfortunately the patient deteriorated and passed away at 12.30am. The ambulance arrived after the patient passed away,” the letter read.
It concluded: “We’ve had numerous problems with Buthelezi Ambulance Service in the past few months”.
In Bloemfontein this autumn, Spotlight visited the Buthelezi offices, situated in a house on the industrial outskirts of the city centre. Ambulances appeared to be serviced or repaired in the backyard. This is a clear compromise of safety standards for emergency medical services.
Outside Welkom, Spotlight saw Buthelezi ambulance vehicles and staff parked under trees. Tender stipulations require EMS private companies to have proper facilities where paramedics can take a shower, have a nap and recharge and refresh properly in-between assignments.
Pittaway says it’s clear that Buthelezi EMS is plagued with problems, yet they continue to be defended by the department of health and continue to cost Free State taxpayers millions of rands.
“We will continue to ask the questions because we don’t feel that we’ve been given good enough answers. We haven’t been able to pinpoint that the premier Ace Magashule and Health MEC Benny Malakoane have direct relationships with Buthelezi EMS, but we believe that how the tender was given out is problematic. We will keep up the pressure,” says Pittaway.
Spotlight’s questions to Buthelezi EMS remained unanswered by the time of going to print.