THE amount of cash spent on private ambulances going to help patients has rocketed four-fold.
Statistics uncovered by the Labour Party in a Freedom of Information request found that the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), which covers Hartlepool and East Durham, spent £2.8m on private ambulances in 2013/14.
The figures was just under £639,000 in 2011/12.
Ambulance trusts in some other parts of the country have seen a ten-fold increase.
NEAS said today that the increase in spending had been due to a shortage of paramedics and a rise in the population and number of calls the organisation has to deal with.
Despite the rise in spending however, the region’s ambulance response times have gone up by an average 51 seconds per call out during the past four years.
The Mail has reported on a number of shocking cases in recent months where patients have been left waiting for paramedics.
One involved Hartlepool pensioner William Gouldburn who died after he lay on his bathroom floor for two hours waiting for an ambulance, despite seven desperate 999 calls by his family.
Mr Gouldburn, 73, had gone into cardiac arrest following a fall at his Meadows Walk home in April 2013.
At the inquest into the death of the retired special needs teacher, NEAS bosses said the organisation does not have enough resources to meet demand.
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, is now asking health secretary Jeremy Hunt for “urgent assurances about the safety and quality” of private ambulances. He said patients would be “stunned to learn that even blue-light 999 services are being privatised”.
“It is proof that the Coalition sees no limits on privatisation in the NHS,” said Mr Burnham.
“They are driving the private sector into the public core of the NHS, offering up essential emergency provision to the lowest bidder.”
A spokeswoman for the NEAS said: “While it’s true that average ambulance response times have increased over the last three years, so too has the volume of calls being dealt with by our contact centre.
“Despite this marked increase in activity, the North East Ambulance Service remains one of the best performing in the country for reaching those patients most in need.
“To put it in perspective, our average response time to an emergency in 2011 was five minutes and 11 seconds.
“In 2014, it is six minutes. Both of which are well within the national target of eight minutes.
“Organisations such as Red Cross and St John have been used to a greater extent over the last year, again as a consequence of demand.
“There is also a national shortage of paramedics due to the longer three-year-period it now takes to complete the required degree.
“NEAS hopes to have an extra 140 paramedics by 2016.”