Here’s a question for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that sounds a lot like the question being asked by countless MaineCare recipients who need a ride to and from their medical appointments:
What the hell’s taking you so long?
If Maine’s new $28.3 million contract with Coordinated Transportation Solutions — a misnomer if ever there was one — was followed to the letter, the new “broker” for most of the state’s Medicaid-funded transportation services would have been sent packing by now.
The contract, which state officials claim was forced upon them by the federal government (except it wasn’t), allows for complaints from no more than 1 percent of the people who rely on Coordinated Transportation Solutions — henceforth known as “Uncoordinated” — for health care transportation.
Instead, since the company took over most of the MaineCare transportation program on Aug. 1, the wheels have come off: So many people have either called to complain (or given up altogether) that the state and Uncoordinated can’t even provide an accurate number.
But that’s not the half of it.
We have the now infamous phone call placed to Uncoordinated last week by state Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, during a legislative committee meeting on the unfolding crisis.
“I’m sorry for any inconvenience,” said the recorded woman’s voice for all the Health and Human Services Committee to hear on Peterson’s speaker phone. “Goodbye.”
We have Richard Staples, a Waterville psychologist who met with a patient recently after six previous appointments fell through (you guessed it — ride problems).
While his patient fretted about making it home, Staples called Uncoordinated’s “Where’s My Ride” line on his office phone. After 10 minutes on hold, he grabbed his cellphone and got through to Uncoordinated’s complaint line, through which he eventually managed to see his patient off in a taxi.
But Staples, curious to see how long it would take Uncoordinated to answer his initial call, kept his office phone connected to “Where’s My Ride.” Twenty-one hours later, with the same maddening message still playing on the other end, he finally hung up.
Which brings us back to our question: Why, after six weeks of stunning incompetence, has the Department of Health and Human Services not invoked its right to give Uncoordinated the heave-ho?
This, after all, is not some run-of-the-mill state contract where a vendor’s failure to deliver on, say, copy machine maintenance has bureaucrats kicking and screaming at the office Xerox.
This is about people — you know, the ones Gov. Paul LePage promised three long years ago he was going to put before politics. And not just any people, mind you, but the ones who have now gone from being thrown under the bus to wondering if the bus will even arrive.
And what says DHHS about this self-inflicted disaster?
“We are evaluating all aspects of (Uncoordinated’s) performance,” DHHS spokesman John Martins told Press Herald reporter Joe Lawlor on Thursday.
There’s plenty to evaluate, such as Uncoordinated President David White’s assurance to the Health and Human Services Committee last week that the average hold time for a caller seeking a ride has dropped from 23 minutes to two minutes.
And this is something to cheer about? What ever happened to dialing a number, for which we taxpayers are shelling out $28 .3 million annually, and hearing a live person say, “How can I help you?” on the first or second ring?
Then there’s White’s explanation for the “I’m sorry for any inconvenience. Goodbye” message that Rep. Peterson actually listened to a dozen times during Wednesday’s hearing before he finally decided to share it with his fellow lawmakers.
In an email to the Press Herald on Thursday, White explained that the number Peterson called was actually a typo that Uncoordinated inadvertently put on an electronic brochure a few weeks ago.
While the wrong number was distributed by email, White said, it was corrected before any hard copies of the brochure went out.
Countered Peterson in an interview Friday: “To say it was never printed is not true. I had the brochure literally in my hand in the committee meeting and I held it up before I called the number on it.”
Peterson, who makes a living helping people with disabilities find independent-living opportunities, said it’s hard for those who don’t rely on MaineCare transportation to appreciate the enormity of what’s at stake here.
Take the everyday stress that we all experience, he suggested, and “compound it with the challenges of living with a disability and amplify that with the anxiety of trying to find a working phone number to try and set up a ride for a critical medical appointment.”
Only then, Peterson said, can you imagine “some of the panic people must be experiencing right now.”
Jim Wood, who directs transportation all over central Maine for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, agreed wholeheartedly.
The problem, Wood said, goes far beyond those maddening messages that play over and over while helpless Mainers stare at the clock and watch their doctor visit or therapy session tick away.
Rather, the problem is that Uncoordinated, whose only previous experience with connecting Medicaid patients with their rides was a now-expired contract for parts of Connecticut and small contracts in a few other eastern states, clearly lacks the operational capacity to deliver what it promised here.
“We’re still on a daily basis developing and testing new systems to try and get this functioning a whole lot more smoothly,” said Wood, adding that the transition has left KVCAP’s transportation hub with “half the staff and twice as much work. It’s just been very challenging for us.”
Not to mention perplexing: Back when this brouhaha started, DHHS officials from Commissioner Mary Mayhew on down said it all stemmed from the federal government’s mandate that Maine switch from a decentralized system of local transportation networks to one run by a regional broker who connects MaineCare recipients with their rides.
But, as we’ve since discovered, that’s a far cry from the whole truth. Hooking Maine- Care’s wagon to Uncoordinated, it turns out, was but one of several ways Maine can align itself better with federal rules and thus rake in an additional $6.1 million in Medicaid reimbursement.
So, if other options exist, what is DHHS waiting for?
KVCAP’s Wood, whose job it is to get people where they need to be and do it on time, said his daily headaches pale by comparison to the people who are paying most dearly for this “solution” in search of a problem.
“These are folks who were having a difficult time navigating the system as it was,” Wood said. “Once they go away, we’ll see them again either in the emergency rooms or the police logs or, in worst-case scenarios, maybe the obituaries.”
Saturday morning, Gov. LePage went on the radio to deliver his weekly address, titled “Prosecution of Welfare Fraud Is Increasing.”
He played around with the numbers, of course, and then proclaimed, “We need to help struggling Mainers to earn success, not to learn dependency.”
Easy to say when you travel by chauffeured limo.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: