TORONTO - Ontario's watchdog is dispatching his investigative team to probe non-emergency medical transfers of patients across the province.

Serious concerns have been raised about private companies providing medical transfer services for an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 non-critical patients every year, ombudsman Andre Marin said Tuesday.

The vehicles aren't ambulances -- even though they often look like one -- and the industry isn't regulated, he added.

"This is a case of speaking like a duck, walking like a duck and acting like a duck, but they're not ducks," Marin said in an interview.

"They've got lights on, it looks like an ambulance, but they're not ambulances."

The services are not operated by hospitals. The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care doesn't supervise the sector, and therefore doesn't set standards for operators or their machinery, Marin added.

"These are contracted-out, private, people haulers between hospitals."

The issue is so pressing that Marin ordered the special ombudsman response team to complete the probe within 90 days.

He said he's received more than 30 complaints so far from patients, their families and even whistleblowers within the industry, which is rare.

They include a Toronto man whose father -- suffering from lung and bone cancer -- was dropped twice while being taken to another hospital. Another woman from the Woodstock area reported that her mother choked to death while being transported between hospitals in 2005.

Kathleen Goldhar said her infant son, who was suffering from respiratory infection, nearly died while being transported between hospitals in January 2007.

Her four-month-old son Nathan was stable when he left Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, but his condition took a turn for the worse during the ride to another hospital about 20 minutes away.

"He wasn't breathing at all ... he was in major distress," she recalls.

She kept asking one of the attendants if her son, who was gasping for breath, was OK, she said. But they never looked at him or administered oxygen, Goldhar said.

"They kept saying, 'Oh, coughing's good,' and instead of paying any attention to my son, they just listened to music and talked to us about music and their jobs."

When they arrived, the nurses were "completely freaking out" at her son's condition, she said.

"It was horrible, and the nurses had to intervene and bring him back at the time," she said.

"Now I realize that he nearly died in that truck, and they wouldn't have known anything, wouldn't have done anything. I think it would have been better for me to take him in my own car, to tell you the truth."

There have been other complaints about lack of infection controls, staff who aren't sufficiently trained, even parts falling off unsafe vehicles, Marin said. Complaints have apparently been circulating for at least 10 years, but have fallen on deaf ears.

Paramedic Janet Carley said she quit her job with a medical transport service in the Barrie and Orillia area after 1 1/2 years.

The vehicles were filthy and linens weren't changed or disposed of properly, she said. Many of the trucks were old ambulances that weren't inspected regularly.

"The issue is (the companies) are more concerned about the volume of calls and how many dollars they can make in a day, versus making sure that the vehicles were properly cleaned and maintained so it was appropriate for the next patient to come in," said Carley.

"They just wanted you to keep picking up patients."

Most workers had little training -- just CPR, first aid and a valid driver's licence, she added.

"All they know is that they're going to pick up this person and take them over here," Carley said.

"But if that person becomes ill and changes in the vehicle, they don't have the training. It's not their fault. They're stuck with this patient and they don't know that something's going on with the patient because they just don't have the training."

Some medical transfer companies provide good services, but there are others out there that are only interested in making a quick buck, said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

"When patients are not satisfied and complain to those for-profit agencies, they're not that interested in getting to the bottom of their complaint," she said in an interview.

"So it's left a whole bunch of people with no answers, frustrated, and nobody accountable anywhere."

Health Minister Deb Matthews said she and Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne are "aware" of the issue and will work with the ombudsman to make improvements.

"I know Ontario families want assurances that their loved ones are receiving the best possible health care, and that they care about the quality of non-emergency medical transportation services," she said in a statement.

Marin's investigation will focus on whether those two government ministries are ensuring that adequate measures are in place to protect the public.

He's also asking people with complaints to contact his office at 1-800-263-1830 or fill out an online form on his website: