Annette's fears over new oxygen lifeline.
n problems Annette Priest with her old-style oxygen bottle (left) and its Air Products replacement Privatisation threatens vital supplies to homes
PROBLEMS getting vital oxygen tanks to the homes of patients with breathing difficulties could be putting lives in danger.
Hitches began for patients - many of whom need oxygen tanks 24 hours a day - when the supply service was privatised on February 1.
Before that date, GPs sent prescriptions to local pharmacists who then delivered oxygen cylinders to patients' homes.
However, four multinational companies have now taken over the NHS contract.
The basic drill has not changed - patients or GPs contact the companies to arrange for new oxygen tank deliveries.
But since the change, complaints have flooded in from patients around the UK.
Many have been unable to get through to the companies by phone.
Others managed to request new oxygen tanks - but deliveries either did not arrive or were very late.
Some patients have made desperate rushes to hospital for oxygen after supplies failed to arrive - and two women died after not making it to hospital in time.
Meltham woman Annette Priest is one patient who has had problems with the new service.
Mrs Priest, 61, of Colders Drive, suffers from a respiratory disease, pulmonary lymphangiomyomatosis.
She has been using oxygen tanks for the past 14 years - and has needed them 24 hours a day for the last decade.
On February 1, the supply of her oxygen tanks switched to Air Products.
Her GP faxed an order for oxygen tanks to Air Products, asking for immediate delivery to Mrs Priest's home.
However, no tanks arrived on February 1.
Mrs Priest was worried that her supplies would run dangerously low.
She tried for hours to get through to Air Products by phone on February 2. Eventually, she did and was told the tanks would be with her that day.
But none arrived.
On February 3, she contacted the company again and at 7.30pm that night, an engineer turned up with oxygen tanks.
She was relieved - but has been left with little confidence in the company.
She said: "With the old service, I used to be able to arrange to have a supply when I went to stay with friends or relatives.
"But I daren't plan any trip now, because they are not reliable.
"I'm concerned that I could be running low one day and they just won't turn up.
"They say to ring them before you start your last cylinder - but the cylinders only last about eight hours. It's not that long.
"I'm not just concerned for myself. There are lots of people in Huddersfield who use oxygen like me and may need it in future."
Mrs Priest said she also had complaints over the kind of cylinders being used by Air Products.
They are heavier than her old portable cylinders and are fitted with `conservers', set to deliver the amount of oxygen per minute that the patient needs.
But Mrs Priest said the gas flow is not continuous and leaves her without enough oxygen.
Her hands turn blue and she suffers headaches.
The new tanks are heavier and have no handles or carry case - meaning Mrs Priest cannot fasten it to her wheelchair on trips out with husband Raymond. She says the loud noise made by the converter also makes it impossible to enjoy trips to the cinema or theatre.
She said: "I find the noise very annoying and other people do too.
"I have been living my life to the fullest and I don't want to give that up. I have never felt disabled but with the stress, my self-esteem has plummeted and I now feel disabled."
A spokeswoman for Air Products apologised for the problems patients have experienced.
She said most of the calls jamming their switchboards were from patients with enquiries, rather than emergency tank orders or complaints.
More staff have now been drafted in to cope with the calls.
She said: "We planned for about 3,000 calls a day to our helpline - more than 10 times the number you would expect during normal operations. In the first two days, 12,500 calls were made.
"In addition, home oxygen order forms were being incorrectly filled in, which led to further delays."
She added that 22,000 patients have been put on Air Products' books and 30,000 more are set to be registered by the end of the six month transition period.
During this period, patients can still get their oxygen supplies from pharmacists.