Sang’s wheelchair-bound brother began to frown and sweat into his head bandage after waiting for hours in front of Cho Ray Hospital for an ambulance that didn't come.
After his sister started sobbing, Sang agreed to pay VND1.4 million (US$66) for a trip back to their home in Binh Phuoc Province, around 110 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.
The family had rejected the price hours earlier, angering a discharge nurse named Le at the city’s leading public hospital.
She had recommended the family take the ride offered by a dispatcher named Phuoc.
In the end, however, the family didn't go home in an ambulance.
Instead, Phuoc sent a small car to pick up Sang, his sister and his brother who was recovering from serious cerebral trauma.
Sang said he was caught up in Phuoc’s scam because “I trusted the nurse.”
A Tuoi Tre investigation found that a ring of Cho Ray Hospital employees have colluded with an illegal taxi service to force discharged patients to pay rip-off prices for rides back to the provinces.
Hours after the investigation was published on Monday, the nurse identified as Nguyen Thi My Le, was suspended, according to Cho Ray's administrators.
Doctor Pham Thi Ngoc Thao, deputy director of the hospital, said they are equipped with around 20 ambulances. Nurses are responsible for hailing rides for patients in need.
Thao admitted that Cho Ray's fleet doesn't begin to meet the demands of the 400-500 patients discharged every day--even though many are strong enough to take a taxi or a family vehicle home.
Weak and delicate patients are supposed to be transported in ambulances equipped with medical supplies and a nurse.
Most public hospitals "covered"
One day after conning Sang, the ambulance ring targeted another victim, last Friday, who had requested an ambulance to Cu Chi District on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.
Phuoc approached him immediately and offered a ride for VND700,000.
The man went away to discuss with his family for a while and they agreed.
Phuoc immediately hailed a car equipped with a siren to the hospital gate.
The man pointed out that he only paid VND500,000 for a ride in an actual ambulance from his home to the hospital.
“I asked some hospital staff to call an ambulance starting that morning but there weren't any.”
Phuoc, who looks like a man in his late 40s, told undercover Tuoi Tre reporters he has been in the business for nearly 30 years, “covering” most public hospitals in the city center and especially those in District 5 like Cho Ray.
He said he provides his customers rides all the way to the north.
“For patients heading to distant provinces, I call a better car equipped with a stretcher and an oxygen tank,” he said.
Phuoc shares half the proceeds of his scam with the vehicle owners.
He hands off the money as soon as the passenger is loaded into the vehicle, in broad daylight, outside the hospital's front entrance.
20 percent for nurses
Phuoc said his people start work at Cho Ray on Nguyen Chi Thanh Street starting at 1:30 p.m. every day.
That's usually around the time that most patients are discharged.
The rule at any hospital is you pay nurses 20 percent for each patient" -- Phuoc, a man who has engineered an elaborate ambulance scam that preys on provincial patients
When his cars are all busy, he asks the nurses to withhold patient discharge papers, without which one cannot hire an ambulance car from the hospital.
“They keep the papers until I message them that I have a free car.”
Phuoc said needs a network of “informants” to run such a business.
“At Cho Ray, I have nurses on floors one to nine who let me know anytime a patient gets discharged," he said of the ten-story hospital. "I pay them directly every time."
“The rule at any hospital is you pay them 20 percent for each patient. That’s how you make them hold onto the discharge papers for you,” he said.
Stills images from a Tuoi Tre video that shows how a Ho Chi Minh City ambulance hustler named Phuoc preys on poor provincial patients with the help of a network of nurses who receive a cut of his proceeds.
Tuoi Tre reporters observed numerous patients and their families lining the hospital’s corridors awaiting their discharge papers
Sometimes the paper hold-up forced the families to use Phuoc’s service, which requires no papers.
Sau, a resident of the Mekong Delta’s Dong Thap Province fell asleep on a bench at 5 p.m. last Friday while awaiting discharge papers.
She had been informed that her son would be discharged early that afternoon, but declined Phuoc's offer of a VND2.2 million ride home.
Sau said she’d rather spend the night on the bench as she couldn't afford the fare.
When approached by Tuoi Tre over Phuoc’s service, Nguyen Truong Son, director of Cho Ray Hospital, said he wasn't surprised.
The doctor admitted that the scam has plagued the hospital for many years and the managers have reassigned at least three nurses caught in the act.
His deputy Thao said it's rather easy to run such a scam at a public hospital where so many people are coming and going.
Hospital security can only ask those caught doing something illegal or harmful to the hospital to leave.
"We need police help," Son said. “We're determined to end this.” .