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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sick Left Hitching To Far East Hospitals

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- After 16 months without pay, Vladivostok paramedics went on strike this week, leaving the city with only four ambulances to respond to heart attacks, car accidents and infant emergencies.

The ambulance service in this port city hasn't been financed for a year and a half, leaving emergency care in a perilous state, doctors said.

"We have no medicine to treat patients in an emergency, the equipment is broken, and the cars are even dangerous to drive," said Yelena Sidorenko, chief physician on duty at the ambulance headquarters.

Doctors are nearly fainting from hunger, and there isn't enough paper for cardiograms, Sidorenko said. Out of 30 teams of paramedics, four are now operating, strikers said.

City Prosecutor Yury Melnikov announced Wednesday that he is opening a criminal case against the mayor's office for negligence in failing to fund the ambulance service, but he provided no further details. In television interviews, he appealed to strikers to return to work. But on Thursday, paramedics and doctors said he hadn't contacted them.

The strike is just one of a rash of labor protests that has swept Russia this summer as the government, clobbered by financial crisis, struggles to find the cash to pay budget sector workers.

But in Vladivostok, the already dire situation is made worse by a five-year feud between the city's idiosyncratic mayor, Viktor Cherepkov, and the regional governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, that has frequently paralyzed public services in the city.

Oleg Sorokin, head of the strike committee, said the ambulance service had fallen victim to the vendetta between the two men. Nazdratenko issued a decree declaring cities within his Primorye region responsible for financing their ambulance services. Cherepkov said the decree is not valid because no money has been allocated for that purpose from the federal budget.

Ambulance drivers and physicians also say Cherepkov's grudge against them is personal. In 1994, police evicted him from office at the order of the regional prosecutor on a bribery charge, and an ambulance was called to the scene because the mayor complained of heart pains. Cherepkov, who was returned to office by court order in 1996, believes ambulance drivers collaborated with the prosecutor, strikers say.

Cherepkov couldn't be reached for comment, but on Wednesday he said on a local radio program that the city cannot afford to run an ambulance service. "The times have changed," he said. "We have medical insurance now. Ambulances should be financed by the Compulsory Medical Insurance Fund." However, Natalya Polishchuk, assistant head of economic affairs at the regional public health department, said ambulances are the mayor's responsibility. "The mayor should stop building roads and putting money into the ground," she said, referring to a controversial Cherepkov scheme to build pedestrian underpasses. "He should fund the ambulance service."

The effects of the strike have not yet been felt at City Hospital No. 1, said Olga Kolesnichenko, physician on duty. The only patient who arrived Thursday had suffered a heart attack in a health clinic, so an ambulance transported her to the hospital.

But Kolesnichenko was sympathetic to the strikers. "There were cases (before the strike) when they were telling patients who called, 'We can't pick anyone up, because we don't have gas,'" Kolesnichenko said. "The whole population is suffering."

At the ambulance headquarters in the Pervaya Rechka district, three drivers took advantage of the lull in business to repair their battered ambulances. Driver Oleg Leontyev keeps the vehicles running with the help of a hand crank in the front of the engine.

"Very often if you're out on a call, the ambulance dies a few times before you reach a patient, and you have to stop and crank it," he said.

By the strike's second day Thursday, 190 people who had telephoned the ambulance service for assistance had been turned away by paramedics, but teams had made 107 trips to attend to patients. Nobody is believed to have died on account of the strike, but Sidorenko says the consequences will become clear over the next few days. Physicians say they expect an increase in calls over the weekend when polyclinics will be closed.

For now, doctors on duty consult patients by phone, while some patients make their own way to the ambulance station to seek help.

"Some people yell at us and threaten to come and kill us here," said Natalya Fesik, a doctor who has worked in the ambulance service for 29 years. But when a woman called to say her husband was having convulsions, Fesik ordered the dispatcher to send a team.

The next call was from a woman who felt sick, but could make it to the

clinic on her own. "I wish you victory," she told Fesik. "Fight to the end."