THE lack of 19 paramedics for the Clare ambulance service and the frequent withdrawal of the rapid response vehicle (RRV) from the county to deal with major trauma cases is putting “lives at risk”, a union has claimed.
The chronic shortage of local paramedics to provide a safe service for emergency patients has come sharply into focus this week, in light of excessive overtime levels for ambulance personnel.
The top 10 Clare paramedics were each paid, on average, €82,000 in 2013, to work exceptionally long hours, due to a chronic lack of ambulance personnel. This average figure is more than double the highest starting salary of €36,640 for a paramedic with over 11 years of experience.
This expenditure, which included €550,385 in total overtime payments made to local paramedics two years ago, has placed the spotlight on “unsafe” levels of additional hours that are still being worked by staff, providing life-saving interventions.
The National Ambulance Service (NAS) had declined to comment at the time of going to press.
In reply to a recent FOI request, the NAS confirmed 10 paramedics in Clare were paid €822,116 in 2013, which is subject to various taxes and levies. This compares to €669,595 for 10 paramedics in Limerick and €778,489 in North Tipperary.
Over half of the 51 Clare paramedics were paid €550,385 in overtime payments in 2013, compared to €190,325 in Limerick and €392,192 in North Tipperary.
In 2009, a Clare Champion investigation revealed overtime payments totalling €506,112 had been paid to 37 rostered Clare paramedics in 2008.
SIPTU representative Ted Kenny and Deputy Timmy Dooley have claimed the ambulance service in Clare has now reached “crisis point”, with an extra 19 paramedics needed to provide optimum and relief cover for annual and sick leave.
Mr Kenny claimed the union has highlighted several issues with the Mid-West management of the NAS since October, yet nothing substantial has been done to address the current lack of staff. He claimed there has been no serious attempt made to reduce the huge overtime bill in Clare since this issue was first highlighted by The Clare Champion back in 2009.
He said paying more than €500,000 on overtime could not be justified when the top long-service rate for an experienced paramedic is in the region of €36,640.
Mr Kenny said the Clare RRV has been stood down six times over the last six weeks, despite assurances the union received from the HSE and local politicians that it would be available around the clock to cope with the ending of 24-hour emergency cover in Ennis Hospital in April 2009.
He warned this had increased the length of response times to critical incidents.
He claimed “lives are being put at risk” by the staffing shortages and regular practice of taking the advanced paramedic (AP) from the RRV to cover staffing shortages in the Mid-West.
Having raised serious issues with the NAS at national level, he confirmed the union could not rule out balloting paramedics for industrial action.
Despite the high overtime payments, he pointed out a lot of qualified paramedics are opting to work abroad because of the high personal and indirect stealth taxes in Ireland.
His concerns are shared by Deputy Dooley, who said Donegal paramedics have about 28% additional relief staff to deal with unexpected leave.
Deputy Dooley expressed concern that three front-line paramedics were recently taken off duty and given new managerial positions without being replaced.
Criticising the lack of paramedics in the county, he said some paramedics are not interested in working for long periods outside their 39-hour working week but, in many cases, are effectively left with no option to keep the service operational.
“The overuse of overtime and the regular suspension of the rapid response vehicle, which was a critical component of the measures put in place after reconfiguration, has the potential to seriously impact on the lives of those who depend on the ambulance service.
“Due to the staff shortages, HIQA response times are rarely adhered to in Clare,” he claimed. “It is clear that Clare patients are not getting the same level of service that is being provided in other parts of the country. It is now time for the HSE and NAS to live up to the commitments made following the reconfiguration of acute hospital services in the Mid-West,” he said.