Durban - Scores of KwaZulu-Natal’s public ambulances have been sitting at vehicle repair shops for weeks because of delays in obtaining authorisation to proceed with tasks as routine as a 30-minute oil change.
Of the 106 provincial ambulances in the eThekwini area, 80 were off the road awaiting repairs, according to a source.
This included minor repair jobs, such as brakes and shocks, and major problems such as accident damages.
But, the frustration over the delays and red tape do not end there for the workshops: once the repairs are done, they often have to wait weeks for payment, they claimed.
One Durban workshop owner, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing a lucrative contract, said he had many vehicles standing on his premises waiting for the go-ahead from the newly-appointed provincial ambulance service fleet manager, Transit Solutions.
The company has the fleet maintenance tender and was supposed to begin servicing the state vehicles from April 1, but has admitted to “certain implementation challenges”.
Said the workshop owner: “Sometimes the problems are minor and could be attended to on the same day.
“Others are just routine maintenance repairs, like oil changes and so on. Authorisation to go ahead with repairs, even in these matters, takes weeks.”
He added that his workshop would sometimes receive a call from Transit in the morning, and be asked to have several emergency vehicles ready by 2pm the same day.
“I fail to understand how they can expect us to do a good job in delivering the vehicles at such short notice.
“Sometimes parts need to be ordered and it takes time for them to be delivered.”
He added that it sometimes took the fleet manager about four days to look at the logged request for authorisation.
“Even when we issue invoices on finished vehicles, we have to wait weeks to be paid.”
Another workshop representative on the South Coast reported that calls would have to be logged six to 12 times before the fleet manager responded.
He added that he and other workshops in the area had to sometimes wait up to three weeks for payment.
The Daily News reported last week that Emergency Medical Services (EMS) paramedics in the Estcourt and Ladysmith areas had resorted to transporting patients in their rapid response bakkies to counter the dire shortage of ambulances.
Estcourt reportedly had 13 vehicles being repaired, leaving only one operational, while Ladysmith had only three of 10 vehicles available for use.
Of the 548 ambulances in KZN, 180 were out of commission.
Transit Solutions said it was in the process of addressing the backlogs.
While not responding specifically to questions posed by the Daily News, the company said: “A contract of this scope comes with certain implementation challenges. We have been communicating progress with our government customers on an ongoing basis and last week met the National Department of Health (inclusive of all the regions) to discuss additional measures that are being taken to ensure that issues are addressed, improvement continues and any backlogs are cleared.
“We acknowledge and appreciate that there is still work to do.”
It did not reveal what these “additional measures” were, but added: “In fulfilling this contract, we have partnered with one of South Africa’s leading banks as our subcontractor to assist with the management of certain of the services. With these specific subcontracted services, our partner retains the core competencies.”
Transit Solutions, the company explained, was established in 1997 and had been a “long-standing, reliable fleet management partner for government and private entities”.
“With a proven track record”, it said it was awarded the KZN government contract effective April 1.
However, on Friday the KZN Department of Health issued a statement implicating the company for the backlog.
The department said: “One of the critical issues of concern is that Transit Solutions do not have a database of service merchants available in KwaZulu-Natal.
“This has affected the KZN Department of Health’s ability to provide an efficient and reliable ambulance service due to the following reasons: having to secure merchants far removed from the service point which is time consuming; delays in the approval and processing of quotations to (the company) due to insufficient data tracking systems in place by the company; the company’s call centre is not a 24-hour service which severely impacts on EMS which operates a 24-hour, 7-day week service.”
The department added that the ambulance services had been severely affected by those challenges because it was forced to keep ambulances awaiting service off the road rather than compromise patient care and safety on the roads.
“In the interim and to ensure patient lives are not lost due to these circumstances, the department tried its best to respond to calls from critical patients needing to be transported to our health facilities for treatment.
“The department has deployed its emergency and rescue vehicles, which would ordinarily be reserved for this function only,” it said.
National Treasury, which handled the fleet management tender, has yet to respond to enquiries sent last week.