Democratic legislators hammered the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday for its handling of the MaineCare rides program and accused the department of refusing to provide lawmakers with public records related to the program.
Meanwhile, the DHHS commissioner said her department will not “rush” into a decision about the fate of a transportation broker that’s under scrutiny for poor performance since it started work Aug.1.
“This complex issue cannot be oversimplified and while we are making progress in our review, we will not rush to a decision of this magnitude,” Commissioner Mary Mayhew wrote in a statement to the Portland Press Herald. “We must thoroughly evaluate all of the information available to us in order to make the most informed decision.”
Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the DHHS has had months to fix the problem and he believes the LePage administration is intentionally slowing down the evaluation.
“They’re wearing out several pairs of shoes, they’ve been dragging their feet for so long,” Farnsworth said. “They have had ample time to evaluate the system. I think what’s happening is, they don’t have a Plan B because they don’t want there to be a Plan B.”
The $40 million MaineCare rides program, which provides transportation for 45,000 low-income patients to non-emergency medical appointments, has been under fire since August, when the state established a system in which independent brokers arrange rides for patients with nonprofit transportation companies. Thousands of patients have been stranded or missed appointments with doctors, therapists and other health care providers.
Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, the broker that’s responsible for most of the state — excluding the Bangor and York County regions — has been on the equivalent of probation since October for subpar performance.
The company, which has a $28.3 million, one-year contract, had until Dec. 1 to show the state that it had made substantial progress in fixing problems, but it’s still unclear when the state will decide whether it has done so or whether the CTS contract will be canceled.
Company President David White has said that significant improvements have been made since a troubled start in August. But critics, including patients and nonprofit groups, say that any progress has been incremental at best.
In October, the DHHS told Coordinated Transportation Solutions that it would have to submit a “Corrective Action Plan” to show how it was going to improve. Farnsworth and Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, asked the DHHS to provide them with a copy of the plan. On Wednesday, the Portland Press Herald also requested a copy.
Farnsworth said lawmakers have been ignored by the DHHS, despite multiple requests for the documents. “They never responded or even acknowledged that a request had been made,” he said.
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee plans to meet Tuesday to discuss the MaineCare rides program.
DHHS spokesman John Martins told the Press Herald in an email Wednesday that he couldn’t immediately provide a copy of the plan but will continue to look into the request this week. Martins did not respond to the Democrats’ accusations that they were ignored.
Commissioner Mayhew, who spoke at the Portland Regional Chamber’s “Eggs âN Issues” breakfast Wednesday, declined to comment afterward when a Press Herald reporter asked her whether the DHHS has a deadline for fixing the rides program.
She issued a written statement to the newspaper later in the day.
“We must evaluate every element associated with the Non-Emergency Transportation program,” Mayhew wrote. “That includes the federal mandate that we do not return to the previous way of doing business, to the performance of the broker and the potential ramifications of moving in a different direction.”
Coordinated Transportation Solutions failed to take out a performance bond as required in its contract with the state. The bond would have helped pay for transition costs if the contract were to be terminated.
Although the state could not return to the exact same system it had before Aug. 1 — a patchwork of local nonprofit groups arranging and providing rides — the federal government has given states wide latitude to devise their own systems.
The federal government is requiring more accountability and transparency than Maine had in the previous system, to prevent people from defrauding or abusing the system.
The Legislature will consider a bill in its upcoming session that would require Maine to adopt a Vermont-style system. Vermont added the fraud prevention elements that the federal government required, but left intact a system in which local nonprofits arrange and provide rides.
Christinia Mitchell of Gorham said Wednesday that her sister, who has cerebral palsy, has missed many rides since August. Mitchell said her sister needs rides to the hospital, to physical therapy and for pain management, and has missed crucial appointments under the new program.
“Sometimes they’ll give her a ride to the hospital, but then won’t pick her up to bring her home. She’ll just be sitting there for hours,” Mitchell said.