TORONTO - Ontario residents would be better off taking a taxi to a hospital than one of the privately owned vehicles used to transfer hundreds of thousands of non-critical patients each year, provincial watchdog Andre Marin said Friday.
The ombudsman said he was "blown away" by the stories he heard while investigating non-emergency medical transfers — an industry that's regulated in all provinces except Ontario.
It's allowed private companies to charge hundreds of dollars per patient for transports in old, beat-up ambulances operated by "kids" with no medical training, he said.
"They place people's lives in serious jeopardy," Marin said.
In most cases, patients would be better off travelling by taxi, he said. Cabs can't pick up customers in a beater and the drivers are all certified and licensed.
"These vehicles — that for all intents and purposes are ambulances — are completely without any rules," Marin said. "It's astounding."
That could change after the fall election, now that the governing Liberals have heeded his call to regulate the industry.
They promised Friday to introduce legislation "at the earliest opportunity" that would set standards and requirements for the industry if they're re-elected this fall.
Bills can't be introduced over the summer, as the Liberals abruptly ended the legislative session a day early last week. Any new legislation would have to wait until after the Oct. 6 vote.
"We became aware that people thought they were in an ambulance when they weren't, they thought that the driver had skills that they didn't have," Health Minister Deb Matthews said in an interview. "So regulating to make sure that they meet certain standards is what we will do. Exactly what those standards will be is something we're going to be working on."
Marin, who launched an investigation in January, said what he found was so compelling that he halted the probe and asked Premier Dalton McGuinty directly for immediate action.
"Of all the cases that I've done since I've been ombudsman, this is a case where I've rarely seen such incontrovertible and conclusive and convincing evidence early on, that was really not in dispute," he said.
Marin said he received more than 60 complaints about private companies providing medical transfer services for an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 non-critical patients every year.
Patients, municipalities, hospitals, even people in the industry agreed that regulation was needed, he said.
One complaint came from a Toronto man whose father — suffering from lung and bone cancer — was dropped twice while being taken to another hospital.
A woman from the Woodstock area reported that her mother choked to death while being transported between hospitals in 2005.
Another woman, Kathleen Goldhar, said her infant son, who was suffering from respiratory infection, nearly died while being transported between hospitals in January 2007. Now four years old, her son still suffers from asthma as a result of the infection.
Goldhar welcomed the prospect of provincial regulation of the industry, saying she'd like to see more training for staff and the same kind of equipment standards that ambulances must meet.
"It's about time, and I think it's going to save a lot of people's lives," she said.
There have been other complaints about lack of infection controls, and even parts falling off unsafe vehicles. Marin said complaints had been circulating for at least 10 years, but fell on deaf ears until now.
Matthews said she wasn't aware of the complaints until last year, but the New Democrats say the government has no excuse for not moving sooner.
"Anybody who had the health file knew about this, and they did nothing for the eight years that they were in power," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.
Visit any hospital and you'll hear the horror stories from patients, she said. Complaints have surfaced in newspapers. Others have written to her and the minister.
"Now they say, 'Re-elect us so we will act,'" she said. "My answer to this is: where were you for the last eight years?"