August 14, 2013

Legislators push for quick solution on rides for Maine's poor

A lawmaker who has received some of the 2,000-plus complaint calls says they are 'heartbreaking.'

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – Members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee criticized the revamped MaineCare non-emergency ride service Tuesday, saying numerous missed rides to doctor's appointments and other medical services require immediate solutions.

click image to enlarge

Rebecca Lee gets a ride home from her father from the Goodwill Neurorehab Services at Bayside after her regular MaineCare-funded ride failed to show because of a "medical emergency" on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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"We're all getting calls, and they've been really heartbreaking calls," said Rep. Margaret Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the committee. "This is clearly a huge problem that needs to be fixed quickly."

More than 2,000 complaints about the new ride service have rolled in since Aug. 1, when contractors from Connecticut and Georgia took over the coordination of free rides for Medicaid patients for most of the state, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Rides had been provided in the past by local nonprofit groups with far fewer problems, many MaineCare patients have told the Press Herald, which first reported on the issue last Thursday.

Coordinated Transportation Solutions of Connecticut landed a $28 million contract for six of eight regions in the state, including Portland, and Atlanta-based LogistiCare won a $5.1 million contract for the region that includes York County. Since then, many people have complained about not only missed rides, but being unable to get through busy phone lines to make appointments.

Company officials have promised that the start-up problems will be fixed, but state officials on Tuesday expressed frustration with the lack of improvement so far this week.

Rotundo said a solution needs to be found as soon as possible, perhaps within days, so that "people with brain cancer aren't left waiting at the curb for two hours."

DHHS officials were not present to answer questions from the committee, but the department did release a statement and timeline detailing how the new system was implemented.

"The launch has not gone as planned and the performance has been both frustrating and unacceptable," said the unsigned DHHS statement handed out to the committee. "There have been problems across the state, including the inability to get through to the broker, as many constituents have experienced, and missed rides. In particular, rural areas have been impacted by the loss of volunteer drivers, who have resigned for various reasons. The department is holding the brokers accountable."

Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, said that perhaps the state can devise a temporary system under which MaineCare patients can still receive rides -- bypassing the new broker system -- while waiting for overall service to improve.

"Can they come up with some interim solution? From everything I've heard, it's not getting better," Sanborn said.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, said the Legislature was told that the new service would be more efficient and effective, but neither has been true.

Hill said that other than public pressure, the Legislature can't do anything other than make suggestions, because the money for the program has already been appropriated. The companies are operating under one-year contracts, which can be terminated at any time if DHHS is unhappy with their performance.

According to the timeline released by DHHS, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service notified the state in 2010 that its MaineCare transportation system was not in compliance with federal requirements. The center presented the state with four options, and the state chose the regional broker model that at the time it believed would "result in greater accountability for the provision of accessible, cost-effective, reliable, quality transportation for MaineCare members."

A national Medicaid expert told the Press Herald on Monday that a regional broker system is not mandated by the federal government, and that the state could have devised a localized system similar to what was in place before Aug. 1.

Hill, the Senate chairwoman of the appropriations panel, said that since last May when Democratic lawmakers angered Republican Gov. Paul LePage, officials with various executive branch departments have infrequently responded to requests to appear before committees. The committees are chaired by majority Democrats.

She said not having department officials present to answer questions has hampered the legislative committees.

"It indicates to me a lack of willingness to work for the people of the state of Maine," Hill said, referring to LePage.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

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

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph 

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