Family slapped with $800 bill for 30min ambulance trip

SINGAPORE - All they wanted was a way to send their 92-year-old mother to the hospital.

The Chngs called the 1-777 Non-Emergency Ambulance Service (NEAS) last month. An ambulance operator quoted them $180 and some additional charges for the trip.

But at the end of the 30-minute ride from their home in Choa Chu Kang to Singapore General Hospital, the family was hit with an $800 bill.

Some of the add-ons on the bill included $150 for oxygen, $80 for bandages and $200 for painkillers.

The private ambulance operator, Singapore Medical Care Training and Services (SMCT), has since been suspended by the NEAS Quality Committee.

The Ministry of Health said it had received eight complaints, including the Chngs', since SMCT joined the NEAS network on Feb 8. It is understood that most of the complaints were about overcharging.

The Chngs' mother, Madam Lim Soon Oh, had a fall at home the day before and the pain was causing her to skip her meals and medicine. Worried, her three sons decided to send her to the hospital for a checkup on May 10.

Mr Edwin Chng, 56, an engineer, needed an ambulance as his mother could not get into a car or taxi as her fall prevented her from bending her knees.

When the vehicle arrived, the paramedic told the family that the mother needed painkillers.

On the ride to the hospital, paramedics put her on an intravenous (IV) drip and administered oxygen. They also placed two bandages on her knees.

One of her sons, Mr Jason Chng, 53, said he did not think of questioning the ambulance attendant or to find out the cost of the various treatments. Their brother, Mr David Chng, 66, a chauffeur, went along with the ambulance.

He said: "They showed me a list, everything was a minimum of $10, $20. We thought that since they are professionals, they should know what they are doing. We didn't want to stop them... After all, we want the best for our mother. I thought that at most, it would cost $400."

Paid up

Despite the shock of the bill, they decided to pay up because Mr Edwin Chng's and his mother's identity cards were with the ambulance staff.

"All we wanted was to transport my mum to the hospital, any additional treatment she needed could be provided by our family doctor, or even the hospital," said Mr Jason Chng.

When The New Paper contacted SMCT in early June, its spokesman said: "We are a private emergency ambulance operator with no subsidy or third party support or funding. Our charges may appear to be high as they are non-subsidised... In our view the charges are most reasonable.

"Other operators may be cheaper as they have low overheads and low expenses."

Besides ambulance services, SMCT provides home nursing services and is an accredited training centre, which provides first aid and medical training for medical personnel and the public, according to its website.

They have a total of five ambulances, according to the Singapore Civil Defence Force's (SCDF) website.

The 1-777 scheme was started in 1998 for those who require ambulances for non-emergency cases.

There are 20 private ambulance operators registered in the scheme. There is a list of the operators and charges on the SCDF website. Mr Jason Chng felt that his family has been penalised for being considerate. "We saw our case as non-urgent and called 1-777. The price is ridiculous for a transport of a non-emergency patient to the hospital."

The Chngs' $800 bill

Emergency call $180

Oxygen $170

IV drip $150

Bandages $80

Painkillers $200

Miscellaneous $20

Call a private operator if you need transport

Call a private operator if you need transport

Call the private ambulance operators directly if you just need a mode of transport, suggested the operators.

In a non-emergency, families could check on the different prices and services offered by the different operators before making a decision, said Mr Timothy Lim, business development manager at Lentor Ambulance.

Callers who use the 1-777 Non-Emergency Ambulance Service (NEAS) number will be connected to an operator, who would assign the caller to an available private ambulance operator.

In 2012, the 1-777 NEAS call centre processed a total of 5,289 non-emergency ambulance calls.

Lentor Ambulance is part of the 1-777 NEAS network and also provides emergency services to the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Mr Lim said about 90 per cent of its clients call it directly.

Mr Arthur Toh, owner of AME Ambulance Services, which is also on the NEAS network, said that calling it directly would be faster and more affordable.

Regardless of the location, a two-way transport to a public hospital with his ambulance company during office hours would cost $80. It would cost $40 for a one-way trip.

In a situation when an ambulance is needed right away, it would cost $130 for a one-way trip as they might have to drop a case or make arrangements with other operators.

A look at prices

A look at prices

An ambulance ride can cost an arm and a leg, depending on the operator you get.

For instance, a one-way transport to the hospital can cost anywhere between $60 and $120. Oxygen can cost anything between $15 and $150.

The difference in prices can be unfair. After all, you don't get to choose the ambulance operator when you call non-emergency hotline 1777.

Private ambulance operators are supposed to comply with the Ministry of Health (MOH)'s Guidelines for Private Ambulance Service.

These guidelines, however, do not deal with the issues of price.

To make sure you do not get ripped off, private ambulance operators suggest families do their research. But not everyone can do that, said Dr Chia Shi Lu, who is a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health.

In February, it was reported that MOH and the Ministry of Home Affairs will review the guidelines of private ambulance operators, which were first drawn up in 1998.

Still, any new regulations should not be too harsh.

As Mr Timothy Lim, business development manager of Lentor Ambulance, pointed out: "We serve the community, but we are not a charity."

linheng@sph.com.sg


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