Scores of patients are at risk of missing vital hospital appointments as transport groups become overwhelmed with requests.
The NHS changed how free transport was provided in 2011, having patients book their own appointments and answering telephone questions to decide whether they were eligible or not instead of their GP booking the free transport.
That led to people using the 19 voluntary groups under Suffolk Community Transport, including Three Counties Transport which covers Haverhill and copes with the strain of three hospital journeys a day.
The worrying situation developed after the NHS in Norfolk and Suffolk changed how appointments were booked in 2011, having patients book their own appointments and answer questions to judge eligibility.
The changes saved the NHS £300,000 but saw the demand on community transport groups rocket by 31 per cent.
Lyn Burgess, who manages Three Counties Transport, said: “Our numbers have increased to three hospital runs a day and now we are struggling to keep up with the demand.
“There needs to be more leniency with the NHS criteria as to who is eligible as a lot of people with mobility problems can’t use public transport but don’t qualify. At the moment the criteria is that you virtually have to be in a stretcher.”
Users of Three Counties Transport pay 35p per mile and are driven by volunteers. With hospital appointments often more than an hour, drivers are often sacrificing more than four hours of their time per appointment.
David Gibbs, 66, from Mance Court, has a prosthetic right leg and uses the service to travel to Addenbrooke’s.
He used to get free transport but lost out because of the cutbacks.
“I usually go four or five times a year, but without this group I’d have to use a taxi,” he said. “Funding for the scheme need to be looked at, and not just from government but other departments as well, they need to collaborate to form and integrated system.”
Even if Mr Gibbs did get free transport, it would only be for him and would not take wife Margaret with him.
Joyce Day, 82, from Allington Walk, also uses it to get to appointments for herself and husband Charles, 86.
“We have found the service absolutely wonderful and I don’t know what we’d do without it,” she said. “I like to be with Charles for his appointments as he is a bit hard of hearing and sometimes he might miss something.”
A NHS spokesman said: “We have already begun dialogue with a representative of Suffolk Community Transport to talk about its concerns and have arranged another meeting later in the month.
“However, we must stress that there have been no changes to the criteria for free NHS funded transport, the guidelines for which were issued by the Department of Health.
“Since September 2011 these national guidelines have been applied to ensure that those patients who are eligible for free NHS funded transport are given it.”
Suffolk Community Transport has now sent a letter to leading local NHS representatives, including the chairman and the executive board of NHS Suffolk requesting an urgent meeting to discuss ways of solving the problem.
John Phillips, Suffolk Community Transport director, said: “We have tried on numerous occasions to get the NHS around the table to discuss this issue and we have largely been ignored.
“Well, the problem is now spiralling out of control and urgent attention to this issue is required.
“The community transport operators are now at breaking point and are no longer able to meet the rising demands for hospital transport under the current arrangements.
“This situation can only end one way and that is leaving many vulnerable people unable to find a way of getting to their hospital appointment, which could seriously jeopardise their longer term health and cause much stress to their loved ones.
“The NHS cannot simply keep brushing this issue under the table; we need to sit down together and find a practical and sustainable solution to this problem.
“Many people are currently being denied the transport to hospital appointments they deserve. Patients are being led to believe by NHS call centres, and in some cases medical professionals, that community transport is free and can provide them with all their transport needs and this is not the case.
“This often results in a never ending round of phone calls and we have on several occasions had to deal with patients stressed and in tears worrying about how they will get to their hospital for their appointments.”
For all the latest news see today’s (Thursday, January 17) Echo.