Royal Free chief executive apologises as concerns raised over eligibility for non-emergency ambulances

Camden Town Hall (Photograph: Google Maps)

The chief executive of the Royal Free Hospital has apologised after hearing of the fight for access to non-emergency patient transport (NEPT) experienced by a member of Islington Pensioners’ forum.

The forum member was said to be 85 years old with severe mobility problems, emphysema, two knee replacements, a bad back, diabetes, is very overweight and has had skin cancer removed from one of her feet, meaning she could only wear special orthopaedic shoes.

She also struggled to walk 25 yards assisted by a stick and a walking aid trolley, with what her GP described as an “array of combinations of comorbidities which no elapse of time will cure or change. She will always require regular hospital transport.”

Despite this, the Royal Free’s policy on eligibility criteria remained enforced in the patient’s case, with a response to her request for transport reading: “All our patients are required to be assessed for every visit, except patients with two or more visits in any monthly period.

“These patients are assessed every fourth visit, or monthly, which ever is sooner. The assessment frequency is to ensure that our patients continue to be eligible for non-emergency patient transport services, or that they continue to receive the correct level of patient transport services.”

Deputees to a meeting of the Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee are concerned that vulnerable patients who may have accessed NEPT previously will now be denied it as part of cost-cutting measures, in the wake of a new contract across North Central London which will reportedly be making savings through the application of national eligibility criteria.

It was reported in February that more than one in ten people could lose their eligibility to NEPT as health funding bodies tackle an “unsustainable” £2 million a month overspend.

Caroline Clarke, chief executive of the Royal Free, said: “We don’t always get it right. I had no idea about this individual lady, but I’m sorry that she’s suffered that, and we do take it seriously. There are national eligibility criteria for non-emergency patient transport, and they’re not changing those, but we’re trying to make them work.

“To give you some assurance, we talk and think about this regularly, and it’s really important that particularly our most vulnerable patients get this service, which is essentially not a universal service. That’s the issue.”

Cllr Alison Kelly (Lab, Haverstock), who chaired the committee, said: “It’s a common issue. I have to say, as a Camden councillor, I get complaints about G4S who deliver the patient transport for University College London Hospitals.”