MEXICO CITY – Many people have been profiteering from the coronavirus pandemic in Mexico; prices for oxygen cylinders, medicinal alcohol and face masks all have skyrocketed. But perhaps the cruelest are the so-called pirate ambulances that take advantage of patients' desperation.
The poorly equipped, often broken-down rattletraps ply Mexico City streets listening to emergency radio dispatch frequencies and race to beat legitimate ambulance services to medical emergencies. They charge patients’ desperate relatives outrageous sums to take them to a hospital, and sometimes even divert them to poorly equipped private clinics from which they receive kickbacks for bringing in business.
Activists and medical authorities have long complained that they're not only abusive, but dangerous: Recent inspections have found many of the vehicles operate without sufficient equipment, with untrained personnel and expired medications.
Rachel Sieder, a Mexico City university professor, fell victim to a pirate ambulance on August 11, when a friend suffered what appeared to be an epileptic-type attack at her apartment. Relatives called Mexico's 911 emergency number, which dispatches free city ambulances, but somehow a pirate ambulance showed up first.
They charged Sieder's account 7,300 pesos, almost $350, for a 5-mile (8-kilometer) trip to a local hospital — the sort of charge more common for a fully licensed service in the United States rather than in a country where it amounts to almost 60 days’ wages for many workers, and where public ambulance service is supposed to be free.
Sieder paid. “Nobody is going to argue about money when somebody may be dying," she reflected.
The ambulance crew pressured relatives at the scene, saying the patient's blood pressure had spiked, though when asked to take it again, her blood pressure was normal.
When asked for a receipt, needed for insurance reimbursement and tax purposes, the crew gave her a handwritten note listing the ambulance company's address as a provincial city 250 miles (400 kilometers) away.