September 17, 2013

Phone calls show MaineCare transport mess persists

With DHHS still evaluating the program after six weeks, the companies hired to coordinate rides say service is better. Yet phone calls placed by Rep. Matthew Peterson suggest otherwise.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Like thousands of MaineCare patients who have struggled to get rides to doctor's appointments in the past six weeks, state Rep. Matthew Peterson couldn't get through on the phone Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

Jeannette Bancroft, 74, of New Gloucester, left, listens as Lauren Hurley, of Creative Work Systems, testifies about the problems Bancroft, who uses a wheelchair, has had getting rides to the Morrison Center in Scarborough, during a meeting of the Legislature's Health and Human Services committee on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, in the Cross Building in Augusta.

Joe Phelan / Staff Photographer

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While officials from the companies the state hired to coordinate rides told a legislative committee that they have made substantial improvements to the program since it started Aug. 1, Peterson used his smartphone to call the number that most people in the program use to arrange rides.

Producing a moment of stunned silence, he said, "I've called that number a dozen times in the last hour we've been sitting here. I'd just like to tell you what I've been hearing when I call the number."

Peterson held up his smartphone and turned it on speaker so people in the room could hear.

The automated voice said: "I'm sorry for any inconvenience. Goodbye."

Despite the graphic demonstration of continuing problems, Maine's Department of Health and Human Services offered no new information Wednesday on how or when it intends to hold the companies accountable for their performance.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the Health and Human Services Committee that her department is still evaluating the ride brokers to determine whether they will be allowed to continue the service. The state has the authority to cancel the one-year contracts at any time.

On Aug. 22, Mayhew told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, "We need to see, in a matter of weeks, a significant turnaround."

She did not provide evidence of a turnaround Wednesday, although officials emphasized the state is holding the companies accountable.

The transportation program costs about $40 million a year and serves about 45,000 patients. The federal government reimburses the state for the majority of the costs.

Since Aug. 1, MaineCare recipients have complained about not getting through, or waiting hours on hold, when trying to call Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, one of the two brokers coordinating rides for Medicaid patients who can't provide their own transportation to doctor's appointments, therapy or other medical services. Thousands have complained of missed or delayed rides.

On Aug. 16, Mayhew told the Portland Press Herald that the DHHS was investigating discrepancies in the number of complaints reported by the companies and the number fielded by her department. She said the state would release accurate numbers. It has not released any numbers.

The committee did not ask Mayhew about complaint numbers Wednesday.

Mayhew did not return a phone call seeking additional comment after the meeting.

Peterson, a Democrat from Rumford who serves on the committee, said he was "baffled" by the message he got when he called Coordinated Transportation Solutions. He asked for an explanation from company President David White, who testified before the committee.

"Representative, I'm sorry, I can't (explain) at the moment," White said. "But I can certainly get you an answer to that."

Coordinated Transportation Solutions has a $28.3 million contract with the state to arrange rides for MaineCare recipients statewide, except for the York County and Bangor regions.

Peterson told the Press Herald after the meeting that he had heard a complaint Tuesday that Coordinated Transportation Solutions' voicemail system was cutting people off before they could be put on hold. He said he started checking the phone number during the meeting.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment decision," he said. "It wasn't a pre-planned 'gotcha' moment."

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chair of the committee, called Peterson's smartphone moment a "marvelous piece of courtroom drama."

(Continued on page 2)

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