AUGUSTA — MaineCare recipients who need to get to medical appointments should see improved service starting Aug. 1, when a new regional partnership takes over service for Kennebec and Somerset counties, a regional transportation director said Friday.

Bangor-based Penquis Community Action Program will take over the task of arranging for rides to non-emergency medical appointments with ride providers. The nonprofit organization’s bid for the work was chosen by the state Department of Health and Human Services after the state’s contract with Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions was not renewed because of poor performance.

Penquis already provides ride-brokering services in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties and also has provided transportation services for many years.

Jim Wood, transportation director for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said Penquis’ experience and preparations should diminish greatly the number of complaints about missed rides and long wait times on phone calls from those who need rides.

“We’re actually quite excited about it,” Wood said at a meeting Friday of the Augusta Community and Social Services Advisory Committee. “Penquis’ average call time was two minutes. So people aren’t going to be waiting on the phone for an hour and a half, like before.”

‘SO DIFFICULT TO NAVIGATE’

Wood said the average call time for Coordinated Transportation Solutions was seven minutes, “if you can get through at all,” noting some would-be users have found it so hard to arrange a ride with the current system, they gave up. “It became so difficult to navigate, some people just stopped. And they can’t afford to stop. They need their services.”

Wood said KVCAP, which prior to last year both arranged and provided rides, also submitted a bid to become the region’s ride broker, but Penquis’ bid was selected. The two now will work together to coordinate non-emergency rides for MaineCare patients in the Augusta and Waterville areas.

Kara Hay, chief executive officer of Penquis CAP, said KVCAP is a partner in their plan.

Penquis will operate the call center for the region and take calls from MaineCare users seeking rides to medical appointments, while KVCAP, from its dispatch center in Waterville, will dispatch other trips scheduled in the region.

Hay said since the contract was awarded, a joint management team of Penquis and Kennebec Valley CAP officials was formed and has met weekly to plan for the new service. Penquis had the highest score of all proposals submitted to the state.

“We’ve very confident we’ll do a good job,” Hay said. “This is an important service people in Maine need to have, and it needs to be reliable.”

Last August, the state switched from a system in which groups such as KVCAP both arranged for and provided rides to MaineCare patients, to the current system of having designated brokers taking the calls from people seeking rides, and then contacting ride providers.

The change, DHHS officials said, was meant to comply with new federal accountability guidelines to prevent fraud.

Wood said the change added confusion to an already complicated system.

AN EPIC FAILURE

Wood also said Coordinated Transportation Solutions and the other ride brokers selected by the state last year “were nowhere near ready to go, so it was an epic failure. We feel we’re much more well-prepared this time around.”

Hay said Penquis received few complaints last year when it brokered rides in the Bangor area.

“We had a very successful year. We feel great about it,” she said. “Getting the contract renewed this year, and expanding to Region 4, speaks loud and clear to the quality of work we’ve done.”

In April, DHHS officials picked three providers to broker rides statewide, including Penquis for two regions. LogistiCare, which previously served one southern Maine region, was selected to serve four regions, while Waldo County Community Action Program was chosen to serve a region including Lincoln, Knox, Waldo and Sagadahoc counties.

The request for proposals drew 32 bids from 11 firms. Coordinated Transportation Solutions submitted bids for all six regions but was not selected for any.

The brokerage system pays a fixed, contracted rate to the broker to deliver rides.

Coordinated Transportation Solutions’ contract for six of the state’s eight regions this year was worth about $28.3 million.

LogistiCare won contracts for the coming year to serve four regions, totaling $28.7 million, according to published reports.

Penquis’ contract to serve Kennebec and Somerset counties is for about $6.4 million, in addition to its $7 million contract for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.