Bay state medics, ambulance drivers down tools
Nelson Mandela Bay state medics and ambulance drivers have embarked on a wildcat strike and will not be responding to any calls in protest over unpaid overtime.
The Bay’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are at a standstill with no indication as to when the dispute might be resolved.
The medics took the decision to come to work, but not attend to any calls at a meeting on Thursday morning.
The shutdown has led to private ambulances being roped in to assist patients.
An agreement that allows for private operators to be paid by the health department is in place as the shutdown continues.
Officials say this could see the department slapped with a bill that could run into millions if the dispute is not speedily resolved.
Though the department has agreed to pay the overtime, it said it was still waiting for the provincial Treasury to approve a special payment run.
Emergency calls to the state-run control room also remain unanswered, leaving people seeking urgent medical treatment with no option but to make their own way to hospital or call a private ambulance service for assistance.
By law ambulance crew members are not allowed to strike as they are considered an essential service.
The dispute is around unpaid overtime that has accrued over several years.
After the meeting, Bay EMS operations manager Ashwell Botha alerted other state officials in a WhatsApp message that medics were “refusing to do calls until these problems are resolved”.
“I have engaged with the provincial EMS directorate regarding this situation facing EMS in Port Elizabeth.
“This has led to delays in the transportation of patients and, regrettably, a delay in access to health care.
“I have additionally requested from the provincial directorate a way forward as a contingency measure until this regrettable situation is resolved,” the message said.
According to medics, the EMS control room at Dora Nginza Hospital was empty and staff were at their base on the premises, but wandering around doing nothing.
In a letter, which Weekend Post has seen, the health department’s clinical support services head, K Matshotyana, said the department had made a commitment in December to settle outstanding overtime claims.
The first payment cycle scheduled for January 8, however, did not occur due to “factors outside the control of the department of health”.
“Unfortunately the payment run was postponed to Wednesday January 15 due to factors outside the control of the department,” the letter said.
“We have requested the provincial Treasury to approve a special payment run on the earliest date of January 13.”
Matshotyana stressed all claims had already loaded to the system and they were merely awaiting the green light from the Treasury for the payment run to move ahead.
“We regret the inconvenience this may have caused and assure you that we are doing everything to make sure these payments are effected at the earliest date possible.
“The department appreciates your continued commitment to serve the people of the Eastern Cape,” the letter said.
Relay EMS operational manager Richard Moodie said it had been assisting with state-related calls since Thursday.
“We have been assisting with both emergency and inter-hospital transfers.
“This has placed private EMS providers resources under strain as well.
“In our case, we needed to call in additional staff to place more ambulances and vehicles on the road.”
Moodie said some call-outs took several hours as they had to collect patients at state hospitals as far away as Somerset East and bring them to Port Elizabeth for treatment.
“In terms of our service level agreement, we will be billing the department of health for these calls,” he added.
Gardmed Ambulance Service owner Dave Gardner said its ambulances had attended to several calls.
“We have also called in more manpower.
“Some of our call-outs are past Nanaga, where someone was stabbed and requesting urgent assistance,” he said.
“This is an additional cost to us, as obviously we now look at overtime and extra manpower.”
Gardner said they were still assisting despite waiting for payments from a 2019 go-slow, where medics refused to work after a spate of attacks on ambulances.
Health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said: “It is a wildcat strike; [we] will do everything to come to an amicable solution to prevent any loss of life.”