Crisis-hit ambulance service pays almost £1m to private companies
The Department of Health spent almost £1m on private and voluntary ambulances last year.
The amount has rocketed from just £3,040 in 2011/12 to £967,230 in the last financial year.
The figures, released by the BBC, come just a week after the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) said that staff shortages meant that in some circumstances, it had to operate at a reduced level of cover.
On Saturday, July 2, the service was 12 crews short across Northern Ireland, with those on call concentrating on the most life-threatening incidents.
There should have been 56 crews operating, instead of the 44 which were on duty.
NIAS said at the time that it would seek support from voluntary and private ambulance crews to deal with non-urgent call-outs.
In 2015/16 the ambulance service undertook 349,793 patient journeys. Voluntary and independent services undertook 8,953 of these, which is about 2.5%.
Patricia McKeown from the union Unison told the BBC that this was a "quick, sticking plaster solution from the private sector".
She said employees are "drifting away" from working for NIAS "because of their deep frustration, because of the stress levels, because it is not possible to cover any more, because people are working ridiculous shifts and all of that is happening because money which is going to the private and voluntary sector is not being invested directly in the ambulance service."
Heather Hamill, CEO of Belfast-based private ambulance firm Proparamedics, stressed that those who are treated by private ambulance staff hired by NIAS receive the same level of care.
"When you put it into perspective, private and voluntary ambulances make up only 2.5% of what the Ambulance Service do," she said.
"We help the ambulance service out when there are high levels of activity. We complement NIAS services and help with non-emergency calls. That frees them up to do emergency calls. We are regulated through the Independent Ambulance Association and the service is the same."
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said: "In order to enable NIAS crews to manage life-threatening and serious calls, the voluntary and private ambulance services may be tasked to deal with those calls which do not require paramedic intervention.
"There will also be occasions when an NIAS Rapid Response Paramedic will attend a call and the voluntary or private services will be despatched, following paramedic assessment and/or treatment, to provide transport to hospital."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The Ambulance Service has explained the circumstances in which independent sector ambulances are used and the costs to the service.
"All HSC Trusts, including NIAS, use the services of independent ambulance services for the transport of non-urgent patients when such transport is not available from NIAS. This can typically be for transfers between hospitals or discharge to nursing/residential care or the patient's home.
"NIAS uses the services of independent ambulance services to assist at times of particular pressure."