A Democratic state senator’s proposal to replace MaineCare’s troubled transportation system with a Vermont-style solution will be among the first bills considered in the new legislative session in January.
Leaders of local nonprofit groups, MaineCare patients and Democrats have signaled support, but it’s unclear whether the bill would get enough backing from Republicans to survive a potential veto. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has expressed dissatisfaction with the MaineCare rides program but does not appear to support an overhaul.
Officials in the state Department of Health and Human Services have consistently said the system will remain, and eventually will work as envisioned when it started Aug 1.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, would force the DHHS to stop using a system that depends on regional ride brokers and has left thousands of people without rides to doctor’s offices, cancer treatments, mental health therapy and other medical appointments.
The $40 million-a-year program serves 45,000 low-income Mainers who have no other way to get to their appointments. It has been beset with problems since the state dropped a system in which local nonprofit agencies arranged and provided the rides.
Lachowicz’s bill would get rid of the regional brokers, which take requests for rides and book them with nonprofit agencies, and put the transportation providers back in charge. As in Vermont, the local nonprofits would have to track the rides and file paperwork required by the federal government.
In Maine’s previous system, there was little documentation of the rides, which raised concerns at the federal level. The federal government is requiring more transparency to prevent fraud, in which recipients may get free rides to places like the grocery store or the beach.
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will debate Lachowicz’s bill on Jan. 9. DHHS officials would not comment on the bill Thursday.
“I want us to do something that works better for the taxpayers and for the people who need the rides,” Lachowicz said. “I want to put something back together more like the way it was, even though it can’t be exactly the way it was before” because of federal requirements.
Lachowicz’s bill has support from at least one Republican legislator, although another Republican lawmaker was non-committal.
Rep. Carol McElwee, R-Caribou, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said, “I like the idea.”
She said the DHHS has been unable to solve problems in the program, despite extensive prodding by the committee, so the Legislature must step in.
“I’m embarrassed that we haven’t been able to help,” she said. “I feel so bad for the people who are missing their rides. The stories have been unbelievable.”
Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, another member of the committee, said the status quo is unacceptable and he appreciates Lachowicz’s efforts to solve the problem, but he doesn’t know if it’s the best way to go about it.
Malaby said he would like to see an analysis of the bill’s financial impact.
I don’t know what the right solution is,” he said. “It’s an ugly situation right now.”
Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the committee’s House chair, said he expects that LePage will veto anything related to the MaineCare rides program that doesn’t support the administration’s stance on the program.
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.
LePage, in brief comments to reporters last week, indicated that some contracts for the broker that arranges rides in most of the state would not be renewed.
Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions has separate contracts to serve six of eight regions in the state, excluding the Bangor and York County regions. It has been on the equivalent of probation from the state for subpar performance.
LePage’s comments drew criticism from Democrats, who noted that waiting for renewal time in August would mean that Coordinated Transportation Solutions would be on the job for another eight months.
Another bill up for consideration would simply cancel the company’s contracts.
Farnsworth said that measure is helpful but wouldn’t address the root of the problem, which is a system that adds a layer of bureaucracy.
Lachowicz said she looked to Vermont’s system this summer as she anticipated the problems.
“I looked to a state that was like us, rural and relying on volunteer drivers,” she said. “They’re like us, and their rides program is working.”
Trish Riley, who worked for the DHHS under Democratic administrations as director of public health policy, said there’s no doubt that the system is having problems, but she questions whether it’s the Legislature’s role to force-feed a solution to the executive branch.
“It is beyond the oversight role of the Legislature, and gets into the Legislature operating the department,” Riley said. “It is an executive function to administer contracts.”
Legislators who back the bill dispute that view and say the MaineCare rides program is an extraordinary circumstance.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: