KARACHI: The Sindh Rescue and Medical Services, which was supposed to be Karachi's first government-backed free-of-cost ambulance service, finds itself in a tough spot hardly a year after it was launched amid much pomp and show by the provincial government. On Thursday, the Aman Health Care Services, the operational partner of the Sindh government, was forced to suspend the operations of the last five operational ambulances due to the shortage of funds.
Launched in December last year as a public-private partnership between the Sindh government and Aman Health Care Services, the service was meant to provide free-of-cost ambulance services for the people of Karachi. As part of the deal, the Sindh government was meant to provide the funds, while the Aman Health Care Services would manage the operations.
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Running it to the ground
At the time the Memorandum of Understanding was signed, the Aman Health Care Services was running 60 ambulances in Karachi. The patients were charged from Rs500 to Rs2,500 per trip, depending on the nature of the emergency. This barely covered the average expense of each trip, an official of the Aman Health Care Services, told The Express Tribune. In fact, the real cost of each trip stood at Rs4,700 on average. The deficit was covered through various donations and sponsorships.
When the Sindh government signed the deal with the Aman Foundation, however, the latter stopped taking donations. The patients too were not charged anything.
The new system functioned smoothly until June 2019, when the funds meant for the fiscal year expired. On June 25, the service was again 'formally launched' amid much fanfare at the Sindh Secretariat, with Sindh health minister Azra Pechuho announcing a fund of Rs979 million to be used over the next six months.
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Of the amount, Rs412m was meant to cover the running expenses, while the remaining funds would be used to add 40 new ambulances to the existing fleet of 60. "Today is a great milestone for the people of Karachi and fruition of Sindh government's unwavering efforts and resolve to facilitate the citizens of this province," Pechuho had said at the time, adding that they were looking forward to expanding the service to all districts of Sindh at the earliest.
Ever since the Aman Health Care Services has been awaiting the tranche of Rs412 million that was meant to cover the cost of running the ambulances from July to December 2019.
Not a penny has been disbursed in the four months since. The non-availability of funds has meant that the Aman Health Care Services has no money for fuel or to stock up on life-saving medicines needed in the ambulances. Even the staff has not been paid salaries in the last four months.
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Meanwhile, the number of ambulances, which was meant to be increased, has had to be cut down, with only five ambulances running in the past week. These too were suspended at 3 pm on Thursday. When The Express Tribune called the rescue service's emergency number, 1021, a recorded message stated that the service has been temporarily suspended due to lack of funds. The recording added that the service would be resumed once the funds were received.
Meanwhile, the Sindh government's spokesperson, Barrister Murtaza Wahab, said that the summary for the disbursal of funds for the ambulance service had been presented to the chief minister and would be approved soon. "Like last year, the Aman ambulance service is being given a bailout package this year too," said Wahab. What he meant by a 'bailout' package was, however, unclear as the service was being run as a partnership between the Sindh government and the Aman Health Care Services. Despite several attempts, Wahab could not be reached for a clarification of his statement.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2019.