EAST CHICAGO | Few city medics chose to sign up with the private company that assumed responsibility over the weekend for emergency medical services.
When Mayor Anthony Copeland privatized EMS duties by executive order last month, officials with Highland-based Prompt Ambulance Services promised jobs for all of the city's paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
But when the firm took over Saturday morning, only seven of the 34 full- and part-time city medics had traded in their blue Fire Department shirts for Prompt's red polos — and three of those already were working for Prompt.
"It meant a huge pay cut," said Corinne Saikin, a five-year department veteran who was the sole EMT to accept a position with Prompt. "As of now, I'm basically making a dollar more than the minimum wage."
Certified paramedics, who have more advanced training than other EMTs, fared better under the privatization plan. Saikin said Prompt agreed to upgrade her status when she finishes her paramedic certification coursework later this year.
Some of those who declined to join the company now have jobs with local hospitals or other private ambulance services. Some are waiting for work with municipalities such as Gary and Hammond, which still maintain their own crews. Others have left the field entirely.
City ambulances responded last year to 5,211 calls, bringing in $699,991 from Medicare, Medicaid, insurance companies and transported people.
Salaries and benefits for the department cost $1.3 million in 2011. Copeland said privatization would shave away at the city's projected $3.7 million budget deficit for this year.
Prompt already had exclusive contracts for emergency ambulance service with Calumet Township, Dyer, Griffith, Highland, Merrillville and Munster when East Chicago selected it from three companies.
The city amended its contract with Prompt on Thursday to provide the company with permanent home bases for its ambulances in Fire Station No. 4, 4823 Kennedy Ave., and the James Knight Public Safety Facility, 2301 E. Columbus Drive, space previously used by city EMS staff.
Prompt agreed to pay the city a proportional share of the costs for heating, cooling, sanitary service and maintenance at the facilities, under terms of the amended contract.
The cost to residents for ambulance service will remain at $375 for a basic life support call and $625 for advanced life support, in addition to a $14.50 per-mile charge.
East Chicago's twin $140,000 advanced life support ambulances were decommissioned at the end of the day Friday and parked at the safety facility, with no plan for their future yet made public.
Working his last shift as a Fire Department paramedic Friday night, Jonathan Roberts said he felt "dramatically let down by the city."
He and longtime EMS coordinator Frank Torres put together a plan for a combination of pay cuts, personnel reductions and changes in billing procedure he said could have eliminated the department's $500,000 shortfall.
But "the city didn't want to hear it," he said.
Roberts, an East Chicago resident, also signed on to continue with Prompt while he pursues a law degree.
"I can change shirts and walk in on Sunday," Roberts said, "and most things will be the same, except my pay."
Prompt representatives met with city paramedics and EMTs on April 23 to discuss the transition process and requirements for employment with the company.
All of those who sought a job with Prompt by the deadline were hired, company officials said, except one 11-year EMS veteran who twice failed a physical lifting test.