AUGUSTA — Like thousands of MaineCare patients who have struggled to get rides to doctor’s appointments in the past six weeks, state Rep. Matthew Peterson couldn’t get through on the phone Wednesday.

While officials from the companies the state hired to coordinate rides told a legislative committee that they have made substantial improvements to the program since it started Aug. 1, Peterson used his smartphone to call the number that most people in the program use to arrange rides.

Producing a moment of stunned silence, he said, “I’ve called that number a dozen times in the last hour we’ve been sitting here. I’d just like to tell you what I’ve been hearing when I call the number.”

Peterson held up his smartphone and turned it on speaker so people in the room could hear.

The automated voice said: “I’m sorry for any inconvenience. Goodbye.”

Despite the graphic demonstration of continuing problems, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services offered no new information Wednesday on how or when it intends to hold the companies accountable for their performance.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the Health and Human Services Committee that her department is still evaluating the ride brokers to determine whether they will be allowed to continue the service. The state has the authority to cancel the one-year contracts at any time.

On Aug. 22, Mayhew told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, “We need to see, in a matter of weeks, a significant turnaround.”

She did not provide evidence of a turnaround Wednesday, although officials emphasized the state is holding the companies accountable.

The transportation program costs about $40 million a year and serves about 45,000 patients. The federal government reimburses the state for the majority of the costs.

Since Aug. 1, MaineCare recipients have complained about not getting through, or waiting hours on hold, when trying to call Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, one of the two brokers coordinating rides for Medicaid patients who can’t provide their own transportation to doctor’s appointments, therapy or other medical services. Thousands have complained of missed or delayed rides.

On Aug. 16, Mayhew told the Portland Press Herald that the DHHS was investigating discrepancies in the number of complaints reported by the companies and the number fielded by her department. She said the state would release accurate numbers. It has not released any numbers.

The committee did not ask Mayhew about complaint numbers Wednesday.

Mayhew did not return a phone call seeking additional comment after the meeting.

Peterson, a Democrat from Rumford who serves on the committee, said he was “baffled” by the message he got when he called Coordinated Transportation Solutions. He asked for an explanation from company President David White, who testified before the committee.

“Representative, I’m sorry, I can’t (explain) at the moment,” White said. “But I can certainly get you an answer to that.”

Coordinated Transportation Solutions has a $28.3 million contract with the state to arrange rides for MaineCare recipients statewide, except for the York County and Bangor regions.

Peterson told the Press Herald after the meeting that he had heard a complaint Tuesday that Coordinated Transportation Solutions’ voicemail system was cutting people off before they could be put on hold. He said he started checking the phone number during the meeting.

“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision,” he said. “It wasn’t a pre-planned ‘gotcha’ moment.”

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chair of the committee, called Peterson’s smartphone moment a “marvelous piece of courtroom drama.”

While White had no explanation for what Peterson heard, he said that, overall, callers’ average wait time has decreased from 23 minutes when the program started to two minutes over the past few weeks. He said complaints have been cut in half, and the system is improving.

“We’re doing the best we can,” White told the Press Herald after the meeting.

But Peterson said there’s no way to measure how many people don’t even call anymore because they can’t get through to make appointments. If problems persist, many people will simply give up and go without needed appointments, he said.

Jeanette Bancroft, 74, an intellectually disabled resident of New Gloucester who attends the Morrison Center in Scarborough to work in the greenhouse in a sheltered work environment, has missed work since the new system started.

Bancroft’s caseworker, Lauren Hurley, said she tried to arrange rides for her, but was put on hold for hours. When she finally got a response, Coordinated Transportation Solutions told her that it had “exhausted” all of its options and couldn’t provide rides.

White said he didn’t know the particulars of Bancroft’s situation but he would look into it.

“Our job is not to deny rides or ask people to reschedule their rides,” he said.

The state’s decision to move to a new system was spurred by federal requirements for additional transparency and accountability. States have wide latitude to comply with federal rules. Maine went with a regional system in which the contractors that arrange the rides are separate from the agencies that provide them.

Previously, local agencies often arranged and provided the rides and the system worked well, many patients have told the Press Herald over the past few weeks.

Farnsworth said he will introduce a bill that would require the state to look at other ways to comply with federal rules, excluding the regional broker system. The bill would be debated in the session that starts in January.

Ride providers, including Jim Wood, who heads transportation for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said there have been only minimal improvements since Coordinated Transportation Solutions took over, and his staff is struggling with more work to try to solve logistical problems.

The ride broker serving the York County region, Atlanta-based LogistiCare, appears to be having fewer problems than Coordinated Transportation Solutions, Farnsworth said, although there are still issues in York County.

Robert Harrison, a LogistiCare vice president who heads the Maine operation for a company that’s in 43 states, told the committee the first week was difficult but the operation has steadily improved.

“Have things gotten better? Yes,” Harrison said.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler contributed to this report.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlordp