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Ontario ambulance workers, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE launched a province-wide, anti-privatization tour at Queens Park on today. The workers will be driving a U.S. style ambulance, painted with credit card logos to represent the threat of pay-as-you-go ambulance services.

“The notion that private ambulance companies will save money is completely false,” says Michael Dick, a CUPE paramedic. “An ambulance call in Ontario costs an average of $230. The average billed to Medicare in the U.S. by private ambulance companies was $760 in 1995 and a huge part of the difference represents profit.”

A CUPE and SEIU report shows that paramedics in the U.S. are paid only $5 an hour and must work 60 hours a week to make ends meet. The unions say that low wages and long hours create high turnover and burnout rates among workers and hurt the quality and safety of the service. The union study also found that over billing and fraud are commonplace in the private services and that some companies charge for “extras” like oxygen, lights and sirens.

“The Harris government has abandoned responsibility for ambulance services as part of its shell game to balance the budget,” says SEIU paramedic Lorne Cowx. “Cash-strapped municipalities are brushing aside legitimate concerns when U.S. corporations approach them with quick-fix solutions. These corporations offer to take care of everything if the municipalities hand over ambulance services.”

Paramedics say that Ontario can avoid the pain and chaos that comes with for-profit emergency services if people understand the danger and make sure their municipal and provincial politicians understand as well.

The tour is part of the OCHU/CUPE and SEIU joint hospital bargaining campaign. OCHU President Michael Hurley and SEIU Canadian International Vice-President Ken Brown say that protecting job security provisions in hospital collective agreements will make it harder for hospitals to privatize health services like ambulances.