Pensioners who volunteer to take sick people to hospital appointments claim they are being taken for a ride by their employers – leaving patients high and dry.
Members of the Volunteer Drivers Social Committee, who work for the NSL Care Service, met in Boston recently to discuss what action to take after the company slashed their mileage allowance for over 10,000 miles from 40p a mile to 25p a mile.
Until recently there were 160 voluntary drivers in Lincolnshire working for NSL, but it is believed the changes have forced many to leave or switch to similar companies, such as Arriva, which still offer 44p a mile.
In protest more than 30 drivers will make themselves unavailable for work this week.
The Boston meeting was led by Allan Harvey, 71, who has been a driver for three years, joining when the service was run by the NHS and paid 45p a mile and diesel cost £1.09 a litre. When NSL took over the payment was reduced to 42p a mile and it was further reduced in April to 40p a mile.
With diesel now costing £1.36 a litre, Mr Harvey, of Spalding, says the reduction to 25p after 10,000 miles is a cut too far. He said: “It will be the patients who will suffer. We take people to hospital appointments as far away as Sheffield, Nottingham, Papworth and King’s Lynn.
“NSL is saying they have cut the amount because of tax as we are not meant to make a profit. But we are perfectly capable of filling in our own tax forms – they can’t expect us to subsidise this service from our pensions.
“It would cost them more to use taxis. One was once booked in Lincoln to pick someone up in Spalding and take them to Lincoln Hospital and then home, which ended up costing the taxpayer double at £160.”
A spokesman for NSL said: “In April, we introduced a new Volunteer Drivers’ Policy, which includes many enhancements for volunteer drivers, one of which is an increase in the monies they are refunded for the first 10,000 miles they drive in a tax year, and the introduction of a ‘patient concession’.
“Following the completion of 10,000 miles the rate changes to align with HMRC guidelines, but drivers can continue to still be reimbursed at a higher rate by working with us to ensure that more than one patient is transported at a time; this is better for overall timeliness, better for the environment, and makes much better use of these precious resources our highly valued volunteers provide.
“We believe that we have struck a reasonable balance between reimbursing the volunteers for their actual costs, in accordance with recognised guidelines, versus minimising the need for the volunteers to incur significant additional costs and time in operating a profit based car service (akin to a taxi with the licensing and registration issues).”
Barry Crawford, 82, is one patient who relies heavily on the services provided by NSL.
He was recently left frustrated and angry when he was told he would not be eligible to benefit from the services.
Having had part of his left leg amputated due to injury and health complications eleven months ago, he called the private firm that runs the non-emergency transport service for the NHS, and was told they could not help.
Mr Crawford, of the Causeway, Wyberton, said: “I was given no reason why I was not eligible, despite at least three calls to them.”
“I have five hospital appointments coming up in one week and with a return taxi trip costing £30,
my pension would not cover it.”
County councillor Alison Austin, for Lincolnshire County Council, got involved and after speaking to NSL on Mr Crawford’s behalf she managed to determine that because he is unable to drive or get into a vehicle unaided, he should be able to benefit from the services.
Coun Austin said: “I spoke to my colleagues at the county council and they pointed me in the right direction.
“I hope now that all will be well.”
NSL has now said that Mr Crawford (pictured right) can use the service and has booked transport for his forthcoming appointments.