Ambulance Chasteners

"Bob Ramsay stopped coming to orientation when I was no longer president. While I was president, for four years, every time we had orientation--except for one or two times--Bob Ramsay came in with me. He never said that. I've been in orientation hundreds of times, I've seen hundreds of employees go through orientation. And what Bob Ramsay does say is, 'We are not a management-oriented company. We are not an employee-oriented company. We are not a financial-oriented company. We are a patient-oriented company.' Ramsay's philosophy, which he started in this company in November of 1982, is that we're a patient-oriented company."

Hayden knows all about Ramsay, but, for a union man, he knows surprisingly little about condition for his members. When I asked him about the low pay, I had to tell him how much it was--he didn't know. "I'm not positive. Are starting wages $5 an hour for EMTs?"

When I repeated that this was indeed the case, he said, "I would like wages to be higher. However, the wages that are set today are the wages that two thirds of our employees voted to accept."

He complains that the employees I've talked to constitute about 2 percent of the Southwest workforce. Asked why 2 percent of employees hate the company so much, he says, "They're disgruntled employees." Asked what they're so disgruntled about that they'd approach a newspaper with what Ryals and Hayden claim are lies about a great man like Ramsay, he says, "I'm not sure. These employees are potentially creating their own problems." Why would they do that? "I don't know. There are disgruntled employees in any business."

But few people have any illusions about working at McDonald's. And I'd like to believe that those responsible for saving my life were happier in their jobs and better rested than those responsible for making me a quarter-pounder.

So: Bob Ramsay, visionary, entrepreneurial saint or greedy, unscrupulous profiteer? It's hard to say--his defenders are as staunch as his detractors, and the former are willing to have their names printed.

But it doesn't really matter. Ramsay isn't the problem. He could retire right now and things wouldn't improve, or get worse. A sneering company boy like Ryals isn't the problem, either. If Ryals stepped aside, he would be replaced by a fat executive just as arrogant as he is. A management toady like Hayden isn't the problem. There are many more careerists waiting to toe the company line.

And Southwest isn't the problem. The most shocking aspect of this story is that Southwest is perhaps the best ambulance company to work for or to be treated by. State officials familiar with its record say there have been no major complaints against Southwest, and the company has responded quickly to minor ones, taking steps to rectify its mistakes. "They're the best employer in the state," says Cantelme.

What is the problem? It's the sheer barbarism of a system that allows health care to be administered by private companies, companies whose very reason for existing is to make a profit. Effective health care isn't profitable--and never can be, because poor people get sick or have accidents as often as the wealthy. When people's lives hang in the balance, and you put profit first, people must die. When it comes to health care, capitalism has no acceptable face. In the case of Southwest Ambulance, it doesn't matter who's right; the bottom line is that the focus isn't where it should be--on the sick and injured.

The solution isn't difficult. Other countries have understood that for years. In Scotland, where I grew up, health care is nationalized, paid for across the board with public money. It has been that way for decades. It's simple and effective.

The same must happen here. The profit motive must be entirely removed. Care of the sick and injured should not be the main concern--it should be the only concern.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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