U-City Council votes to privatize ambulance services despite strong union, residential opposition

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Why The Rush
WHY THE RUSH? Kurt Becker, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2665, questioned University City Council members and representatives of Gateway Ambulance on the urgency to approve the plan to outsource the city’s ambulance services when there is so much evidence that suggests it would have a negative impact on residents in terms of quality and response times. – Labor Tribune photo

By SHERI GASSAWAY

Correspondent

Much to the dismay of union officials and residents, the University City Council has agreed to outsource its ambulance services to a private contractor, essentially stripping the duties from city firefighters/paramedics.

After four hours of heated debate and dozens of comments from residents vehemently opposed to the idea, the council voted 5-2 in favor of the controversial contract at its Aug. 3 meeting. More than 100 residents attended the meeting, many holding signs that read “Don’t outsource my EMS” and “We want public input”.

“The vote showed an utter disregard for the citizens who showed up and overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the contract,” said Kurt Becker, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2665 – the union that represents the city’s firefighters/paramedics. “It was disgusting. There is no excuse for elected officials to show that much contempt toward their constituents.”

According to some city officials, use of the private company will save the city $500,000 a year in emergency medical services and decrease response times without any city firefighters/paramedics losing their jobs. However, City Manager Lehmen Walker said the savings would come directly from salaries.

“They were talking out of both sides of their mouths,” Becker said. “There will be jobs lost through attrition.”

A LAST-MINUTE DEAL

Dont Outsource
DON'T OUTSOURCE MY EMS: More than 100 University City residents attended the City Council meeting, many holding signs in opposition to the city's controversial, rushed-through plan to privatize ambulance services. – Labor Tribune photo

Councilmembers Terry Crow and Paulette Carr voted against the agreement. They expressed frustration that the council as a group had never discussed outsourcing the services to Gateway prior to Monday’s meeting. They were also disgruntled by the fact that there was not a public hearing on the matter.

“I received the contract and a cover letter on the item Thursday at 9 p.m.,” Crow said at the Monday meeting. “That’s not enough time for review, and I have several unanswered questions.”

Becker also found out about the plan to outsource EMS in University City on Thursday night –– after a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contacted him for comment.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the outsourcing plan,” Becker said. “It was just shoved down our throats.”

TERMS OF THE AGREEMENT

The five-year contract, set to begin Sept. 1, turns over all city emergency medical services to Gateway Ambulance. The company will collect about $700,000 in fees the city now receives from individuals and insurance companies for transport and medical services.

Gateway is a division of Procarent – a Louisville, KY.-based transportation company offering ambulance and taxi cab services. University City will be Gateway’s first location in Missouri where it will be responsible for providing 911 around-the-clock ambulance services to an entire city. This was another source of contention.

“So we’re going to be Gateway’s test market?” Carr asked of his peers at the meeting.

Under the agreement, Gateway will provide two ambulances positioned in “strategic” locations in University City 24 hours a day. Two additional ambulances will be on standby in neighboring cities. Each ambulance will be staffed by one paramedic and one emergency medical technician (EMT).

DISREGARD FOR
QUALITY OF CARE

Currently, two paramedics staff each University City ambulance. A paramedic can administer advanced life support, while an EMT is trained to provide basic life support. The change has many residents like Stephanie Douglass concerned about quality of care in crucial moments.

Douglass, who is also an ICU pediatric nurse, said to the council: “I want to know that if one paramedic can’t intubate my child or run a line, there is another paramedic there who can try. And as far as the savings to the city? Is your family member worth $500,000?”

LONGER RESPONSE TIMES

Becker told the council that in the last decade, five cities in St. Louis County have decided to in-source their emergency medical services because the private companies they worked with resulted in longer response times.

Such was the case in Olivette, which borders University City. Here’s what the city posted on its website as one of the reasons for bringing ambulance services back in-house in 2010:

“The residents and business community benefit from the fire department having its own ambulance. The fire department’s average response time to an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) call was three minutes and 35 seconds. The private ambulance transport company reported 17.5 percent of the calls for service in Olivette did not have an ambulance on scene for over nine minutes in 2008. That means that for 128 calls for emergency service, Olivette paramedics were waiting with the sick or injured person for over nine minutes before an ambulance arrived. By operating our own ambulance, there is no wait time once our ambulance arrives. This has a direct relation on how quickly someone gets to the hospital for definitive care."

Becker said: “The outsourcing will have significant consequences in University City. It’s just a terrible idea.”

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