The GMB union has criticised health chiefs as another “patient transport service” ambulance firm has gone bust.
The union criticised the reliance on private providers, with at least four companies going out of business and another walking away over the past few years.
GMB regional organiser Gary Palmer spoke out after Medi-1 went into receivership at the end of January, leaving about 30 staff out of pocket and without jobs.
Medi-1 was a sub-contractor to South Central Ambulance Service, the NHS trust that took over the “non-emergency ambulance” contract from the now defunct Coperforma.
The Coperforma saga started when new arrangements were drawn up four to five years ago for the Sussex Patient Transport Service, which takes non-emergency patients to and from hospital, including those in Brighton and Hove.
Health chiefs separated the “booking” function from the “transport” function, prompting the exiting provider, South East Coast Ambulance Service, to pull out of the bidding for the contract.
The contract was awarded to a company called Coperforma but a series of problems throughout 2016 led to South Central Ambulance Service stepping in.
At least two sub-contractors went bust – Docklands and Langfords – while Thames Ambulance, another private provider, walked away in a row over unpaid invoices.
The GMB said: “Once again, hard-working staff and GMB members are made to suffer for Sussex commissioners dithering.
“Yet another Sussex Patient Transport Service (PTS) provider has gone bust as regional clinical commissioners remain non-committal towards the future of patient transport services in the county.
“Medi-1 are the latest Sussex private PTS provider to go to the wall after getting into financial difficulties leaving around 30 staff and GMB members unpaid and without work.
“Staff found themselves being notified that the company had gone into receivership late on Friday 31 January.”
The GMB called on Sussex health commissioners to commit to the NHS provider South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) – “and the patients of Sussex” – by giving them, as current provider, the security of a five-year minimum contract.
The union said: “This will enable them to continue with developing a full in-house NHS model of provision and not the current hybrid model where SCAS have to manage the expectations and profit-driven desires of private shareholders alongside the needs of patients and the staff who deliver the service.”
Longer contracts also make it more likely that providers will invest in the service, including vehicles and other equipment as well as staff training and development.
Mr Palmer said: “Medi-1 has now become the latest in a long line of failed private contractors working on the CCG’s hybrid model of non-emergency patient transport services being delivered across Sussex.
“As before, staff and their families now have to endure the brunt of profit-driven business failures and the need to find new work immediately while struggling without the money they are owed and desperately need to get by on while they do so.
“GMB of course are back out doing what it does best when private profiteers shut up shop and leave staff without assistance here in Sussex by supporting those who need us as we press other providers to get involved and help.
“Our concern is that Medi-1, just like others who have failed before, will simply re-present itself to the market in another form and just expect to pick up and secure work from ill-informed commissioners keen to tick boxes by cutting further finances from an already squeezed sector.”
He also said that it was shocking that clinical commissioning group (CCG) bosses appeared to learn “absolutely nothing every time another failure happens”.
Mr Palmer added: “Medi-1 is added to the roll call of failed providers such as Coperforma, Docklands, Langfords and Thames Ambulance among others while the contract has been in their charge.
“The only PTS constant remains SCAS and thank heavens for that but, even with their steady hand, the Sussex Patient Transport Service is moving closer towards crisis point.”
Union bosses are concerned that the South Central Ambulance Service could also pull out unless health chiefs give them greater certainty and a longer contract.
Such a move might mean the end of an NHS-led non-emergency patient transport service in Brighton and Hove and the wider county.
Mr Palmer said: “It wouldn’t be good for staff and our members – and it would be a disaster for patients.”
He said that patients had recently benefited from some of the best levels of service since the Coperforma saga started in 2016.
He added: “We could – no matter how hard it might seem to be to believe it – find ourselves in a worse position than the Coperforma days – and they were about as awful as anyone could imagine.
“The CCGs must back the GMB in putting all doubts around this at times ill-fated contract to an end, joining us in saying to those seeking to solely make money from Sussex NHS services, disregarding both high standard service levels and staff welfare along the way, by saying you no longer welcome here and this is an wholly in-house NHS provision only for the benefit of the patients and not profits.”