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Durban - Ambulance services will no longer be able to cherry pick patients, taking only those with money, a state of affairs Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi says is “even more devastating” than under apartheid.

He said private emergency medical services were ruled by money and if an ambulance turned up at an accident and the patient did not have medical aid or cash, “they will leave you to bleed to death”.

Motsoaledi, speaking in Durban on Thursday, added “that is grossly unfair”. But two of the country’s leading emergency medical services have disputed his claims.

One has offered figures and stressed it had never abandoned a patient “and never will”, while the annual report of the other revealed it had cared for thousands of patients who did not have medical aid, at a cost to themselves of R30 million.

The minister said there were enough ambulances in the country, but most were earmarked for the 16% of the population who had medical aid.

He was speaking in a media interview after the launch of a ground-breaking programme on eye health training, destined to turn the tide of blindness and visual impairment in Africa.

Motsoaledi said a three-year study into emergency medical services had been concluded and it had recommended that one telephone number be used for the country’s ambulance service: both private and state-owned.

The minister had just applied to the Department of Communications to provide that number, he said.

The emergency services should respond to rich and poor patients, he said, and under the proposed Emergency Medical Services Regulations that would become law.

Under the new law, ambulance services that failed to treat patients without medical aid could be stripped of their licences.

The constitution said that nobody could be refused emergency medical treatment or transportation, the minister pointed out.

He said the current system was “even more devastating” than the devastation of apartheid, recalling that he had studied to become a doctor in Durban 33 years ago.

While Addington Hospital was for white patients at that time, and King Edward VIII for black patients, if there was an emergency, they were taken to either hospital. Only once stabilised were they be transferred for race reasons.

Now, while it was no longer an issue of colour, it was one of money.

Asked to comment on the minister’s remarks, Russel Meiring, the ER24 spokesman, said: “ER24 has always taken a vow to treat any and all patients in an emergency, whether they have medical aid or not.

“We have never abandoned a patient and never will. We will take the patient to the appropriate hospital where every patient receives the same treatment.”

In a non-emergency (non-critical situation), they will make a call to a provincial service and remain at the scene caring for the patient until that state ambulance arrived.

Page 57 of Netcare Ltd’s 2015 Integrated Report, available on the group’s website, points out under the heading, “Netcare Emergency Medical Services Socially Beneficial Outcomes”, that Netcare 911 responds to any life-threatening emergencies, irrespective of whether the patient is medically insured or able to pay for the service.

“In the last two years, Netcare 911 has cared for nearly 9 000 indigent patients needing emergency care at a cost of R30m.”

The minister said that 8.5% of the country’s GDP was spent on health, with 4.4% going to 16% of the population (who have medical aid) and 4.1% on 84% of the population who did not have medical aid.

Referring to the proposed National Health Insurance plan, he said the solution was to pool funds for the benefit of everyone.

He stressed that the plan was not to destroy the private health system, “but we want it (resources) to be available for the whole population,” he said.

The pioneering programme that was launched by the not-for-profit Orbis organisation at the Durban ICC on Thursday, was urgently needed to prevent more children and adults going blind or to have their sight affected by conditions that were treatable.

“Up to 80% of all blindness and visual impairment is preventable, but it takes the right human resources to stop them in their tracks,” Orbis and its partners said as they launched the Human Resources for Eye Health Initiative, which will train people to target eye health more vigorously.

The keynote speaker, former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, has helped raise awareness of the causes of avoidable blindness since his appointment as the International Council of Ophthalmology ambassador for Vision 2020: Sub Saharan Africa, two years ago.

Orbis was working to strengthen child eye care in KZN, Lene Overland, the chief executive of Orbis Africa, said.

More than 380 nurses had been trained to recognise if their young patients had eye problems, enabling them to refer the children for treatment.