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19 September 2017, 10:10
The East of England Ambulance Service Trust has spent TWICE as much this year as the one before on private ambulances.
Nationally NHS spending on private ambulances has risen by more than a fifth in two years to reach over £78 million, new figures show.
In 2016/17, £78,359,087 was spent, similar to the £79,678,733 in 2015/16, but up 22% on the £64,201,770 in 2014/15.
South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust spent the most across the year.
The second biggest outlay was by the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, which spent £14,012,429.
The year before, it had a bill for less than half of that, at £6,639,335.
Private ambulances are hired from private firms as well as charities such as St John Ambulance and the Red Cross.
Experts said soaring demand was behind the need for them, as well as problems moving patients through hospitals, which means NHS ambulances cannot be freed up.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine's president, Dr Taj Hassan, said: "It is concerning that trusts are having to use part of their budget for private ambulances, and serves to highlight the current levels of demand emergency departments are facing.
"Under-resourced departments are struggling with overcrowding and 'exit block', when patients cannot be moved in a timely manner to a ward.
"This means patients are waiting longer to be seen and ambulances cannot offload patients quickly, because there is simply no room for them.
"Ambulances then have to queue outside emergency departments for longer than should be necessary, delaying them from getting back out into the community, and creating a need for private ambulances."
An East of England Ambulance Service Trust spokesperson said: "Over the last few years, the Trust has hired hundreds of new staff to improve the service for our patients and to meet growing demand.
"As well as overtime, we use private ambulance services as a flexible resource to meet spikes in demand, such as winter when we see far more demand. It takes three years to qualify as a paramedic and we use private services to fill gaps in budgeted capacity whilst student paramedics complete their university studies and whilst we fill vacancies.
"We continue to increase our own front-line staffing, which has enabled us to significantly reduce our use of private ambulance services this financial year and in the first five months of 2017/18 our private ambulance spend was £1.7m. We plan to spend around £3million this year on front line support and will dynamically review it to keep our patients safe.
"Recruiting trained staff, particularly registered paramedics, is extremely challenging and whilst we continue to recruit and train a significant number of patient facing staff we continue to use private ambulance services so that we can respond to patients as quickly as possible and give them the best possible service.
"Like the vast majority of UK ambulance services, we use Care Quality Commission (CQC) registered private ambulance services so that we can respond to patients as quickly as possible. Alongside the requirement to be officially CQC accredited, each provider we use is also subject to our own internal approval processes and regular quality reviews."