AUGUSTA — After a flurry of amendments proposed by Democrats who hold a majority on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, the panel voted along party lines Thursday to endorse a bill that would make changes to MaineCare’s troubled rides system.
The bill will go before the full Legislature in the coming weeks. It would terminate the contracts of the state’s three current ride brokers when they expire June 30, and force the Department of Health and Human Services to write a request for proposals for the coming year’s contracts that’s more friendly to local nonprofits.
The program gives free rides to MaineCare patients who need transportation to medical appointments. Democrats said Thursday that they are trying to prevent a repeat of last summer, when thousands of patients missed rides to and from appointments as the new system started.
The system, implemented Aug. 1 to meet federal guidelines for preventing fraud and abuse, brought in contractors to arrange rides in eight regions statewide. Previously, local nonprofits arranged and provided the rides.
“I watched that train wreck last summer,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, a member of the committee. “I don’t want to watch the same train wreck this summer.”
In January, officials from the DHHS and representatives of local nonprofits discussed a solution in which the local groups would have a better opportunity to bid on ride broker contracts for the coming year.
The DHHS had announced previously that the six contracts for Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, which covers all but the Bangor and York County regions, would not be renewed.
To give the local groups a better chance to win the contracts, DHHS officials said they were open to giving preference to local groups that submitted bids, and to eliminating a rule that bars ride brokers from referring more than 25 percent of the rides to themselves.
Local agencies found that rule made it counterproductive to bid on ride broker contracts. Because many are also transportation providers, they would reduce their ride numbers by becoming brokers and adhering to the 25 percent rule.
DHHS officials released new bidding procedures Wednesday in their request for proposals for the coming year, but Gattine said they declined to attend Thursday’s committee meeting to explain them.
Gattine said he’s concerned that the new bidding guidelines do not go far enough to give local nonprofits a good chance to win contracts. The guidelines include the 25 percent rule, although it could be waived at the discretion of the DHHS.
Local transportation providers who worked with DHHS officials to form a compromise and attended Thursday’s meeting said they didn’t yet know what to think about the bidding guidelines because they still had to pore through the 90-page document.
The bill endorsed Thursday would void the new DHHS request for proposals.
One amendment to the bill would give the Health and Human Services Committee control over whether to scrap the entire system later and adopt a program that puts local nonprofit groups in charge, rather than regional ride brokers.
Democrats expressed frustration that DHHS officials who were invited to the committee meeting did not attend, while Republicans argued that Democratic lawmakers were overstepping their bounds by acting as if they ran the department.
“Oversight? Yes. Micromanaging? No,” said Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: