September 13, 2013

Rides-for-poor companies get extra scrutiny in Maine

Legislators press for fixes, and DHHS officials question how a phone-in problem was handled.

By Joe Lawlor jlawlor@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Lawmakers said Thursday that they are keeping pressure on the companies that arrange rides for MaineCare recipients in an effort to improve the service, but it remains unknown how much time the companies have to correct problems before their state contracts are canceled.

In this July 2013 file photo, Winslow resident and MaineCare recipient Judith Mitchell, who sees very little, feels for a glass of water in her kitchen on Tuesday. Mitchell said she had been trying for three weeks to get transportation for an eye doctor appointment in Ellsworth. Lawmakers said Thursday, Sept. 13, 2013 that they are keeping pressure on the companies that arrange rides for MaineCare recipients in an effort to improve the service

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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The state has wide latitude to cancel the ride brokers' one-year contracts, which started Aug. 1. State officials were non-committal Thursday, but they have said that the companies must adhere to strict standards or face termination of their contracts, which can happen at any time.

In mid-August, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the companies had "weeks" to make substantial improvements. Weeks later, the state has not indicated whether enough has been done to improve service for low-income Mainers who need rides to doctor's appointments, therapy sessions and other medical services.

MaineCare patients and their families have lodged thousands of complaints in the past six weeks about missed rides and difficulty contacting the ride brokers to arrange them.

"We are evaluating all aspects of their performance," John Martins, a DHHS spokesman, said Thursday.

A dramatic moment Wednesday in a meeting of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee has some legislators questioning the abilities of Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, which has a $28.3 million contract to arrange rides in most regions of the state, including Portland, Augusta and Lewiston.

"My feeling is, we are dealing with a major incompetency in running the program," said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the committee's House chair. "I'd give them two more weeks to get it straight."

Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, stunned the committee Wednesday by calling a number listed on a Coordinated Transportation Solutions brochure to be used by patients to arrange rides.

After calling a dozen times during the meeting and continuously getting an automated message, Peterson held up his smartphone and played the message for the audience. It said, "I'm sorry for any inconvenience. Goodbye," before disconnecting the caller.

David White, president of Coordinated Transportation Solutions, did not have an explanation for Peterson during the meeting.

On Thursday, in an email response to questions from the Portland Press Herald, White said a wrong phone number was listed in an electronic version of a brochure a few weeks ago.

That wrong phone number was distributed by email, but it has since been corrected and was not printed, White wrote. In addition, the correct number is on the MaineCare website.

But Peterson said he got the phone number from a printed brochure he was given.

When asked why those who called the incorrect phone number didn't hear a message giving them the correct number, White wrote, "(The) phone number does not belong to us, so we can't put a message on it."

When asked whether his company should have asked the holder of the phone number to include a message giving the right number for MaineCare rides, White replied, "We'll look into your suggestion."

But Peterson said Coordinated Transportation Solutions should have done everything possible to let patients know the correct number, and that having an incorrect number distributed without redirecting patients was a major misstep.

He said clients have also complained about hours-long waits to call for rides, exhausting their cellphone minutes. He said he's worried that many are giving up and missing needed appointments.

"This is an enormous contract. There's a lot of Maine dollars in that contract. People deserve good service for that kind of investment," Peterson said.

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

Peterson stopped short of saying the contracts should be canceled, and said Coordinated Transportation Solutions should be given more time to improve.

Martins, with the DHHS, said the phone number problem raises concerns, and that the state is asking the contractor many of the same questions as the Press Herald.

Meanwhile, White said hold times have been significantly improved, from a 23-minute average to less than two minutes in recent weeks.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the problem may lie more in the complicated system created by the state than with the contractors. "We've made this way too complicated," he said.

The new system separates the contractors that coordinate the rides from the agencies that actually provide them.

Martins said the state is confident that the system will work with the correct contractor.

Coordinated Transportation Solutions won its contracts by outbidding other companies in six of the eight regions of the state. Atlanta-based LogistiCare outbid others in the York County region, and Penquis, a local nonprofit, was the only local provider to win a contract, in the Bangor area.

Legislators said there have been far fewer complaints about Penquis, which arranged and provided rides before Aug. 1.

The state changed its MaineCare rides program from a decentralized, more informal program operated by a patchwork of local agencies to a more formal system. The change was spurred by federal rules for transparency and accountability, although states have flexibility to comply with those rules.

Rep. Carol McElwee, R-Caribou, another member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the situation is a "mess" and she expects improvements by Coordinated Transportation Solutions when the committee meets again in late October.

"I think we should give them a little more time," McElwee said. "They know we are most concerned."

 

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

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph

 

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