The Department of Health and Human Services has no alternate plan in place for providing medical transportation to low-income Mainers if it cancels the contract of a Connecticut company that has left thousands of patients stranded or late for medical appointments over the past several weeks.
But the human services department reiterated that it is committed to hiring transportation brokers to coordinate the MaineCare ride service despite receiving thousands of complaints about Coordinated Transportation Services. The department has given the company a Dec. 1 deadline to fix its problems.
“Our actions will be in support of sustaining the brokerage model,”said human services spokesman John Martins in an email Friday. “We are evaluating all of our options,” he said. How the program would run if the agency decides to cancel the Connecticut company’s contract “has yet to be defined.”
The human services department has been criticized by lawmakers and the public about the ride provider’s performance.
While the agency put the company under the equivalent of probation for subpar work, it also gave them two more months to make improvements — almost double the time the company has been on the job.
Critics said giving the company that much time was too lenient, given the company’s record.
State Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which discussed the issue last week, said the contract with the company should be canceled immediately, or at most extended two more weeks.
“Have the courage to call the contracts,” Hill said. “These are supposed to be professionals. They (Coordinated Transportation Services officials) should have had their act together when they walked through the door.”
Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, said that Dec. 1 “seems like a really long time.”
“This is hurting people and it could cause people to end up in the emergency room,” said Sanborn, also an Appropriations Committee member. “There’s a real cost to continuing this.”
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the time frame is “far too generous.”
“We have people who can’t get to dialysis treatments, who can’t get to chemotherapy treatments. This is a disaster,” she said.
The state adopted the broker model, which is used in many other states. MaineCare is the state’s version of Medicaid, the federally funded health insurance program for low-income people.
Since Coordinated Transportation Services started on Aug. 1, it has botched more than 4,000 ride arrangements, according to figures the company has submitted to the state, and patients have lodged more than 3,300 official complaints. The Health and Human Services Department has questioned the accuracy of the company’s complaint numbers, saying they didn’t square with the number of complaints received by the department.
The Press Herald has requested the department’s complaint records under the Freedom of Access Act, but they have not yet been released.
Coordinated Transportation Services won a $28.3 million publicly funded contract to serve patients in most of the state who need rides to doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions and non-emergency hospital visits. The company covers six of eight regions in the state, excluding Bangor and York County.
The company takes calls from patients, verifies their eligibility for assistance and arranges the rides through an approved list of transportation services.
President David White said this week that his company is making progress, and will meet state standards by the Dec. 1 deadline.
“We’ve made some good improvements,” said White, pointing to reductions in call waiting times and missed rides. “But we’re not perfect yet.”
But Daniel Donovan, executive director of Aroostook Regional Transportation System, said that any improvement by the comany been marginal.
“It’s 10 weeks into the process and they’re nowhere near where they should have been on Day 1,” Donovan said.
Donovan and other ride providers said they could be ready to jump in within a matter of weeks should the state cancel the contract with Coordinated Transportation Services.
“If I could bring two to three people back right away that we had to lay off, we could start tomorrow,” Donovan said.
He said the Aroostook program would be back to 80 percent of its former capacity in about a week, and 100 percent back within a few weeks.
Spokespersons for other nonprofits that had been coordinating rides, such as the Portland-based Regional Transportation Program and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, also said that they could ramp up to the old system within weeks.
Hill said the state should go back to what worked before, at least temporarily.
“I don’t know why we can’t go back to the system we had before and make improvements on that,” Hill said.
Meanwhile, many have told the Press Herald that they are suspicious of numbers being reported by Coordinated Transportation Services to the state, because the company is in charge of keeping track of complaints.
“I don’t think these numbers are accurate,” Hill said.
Westbrook resident Michael Reardon said he has been unable to lodge a complaint with the company about his missed appointments.
“It is completely impossible to file a complaint,” said Reardon, a methadone patient who receives bus passes.
Lawmakers were also left puzzled about the “disconnect” between a scathing Sept. 30 letter from Stephanie Nadeau, the state’s director of MaineCare services, to Coordinated Transportation Services, and an upbeat memo to the appropriations committee from Mary Mayhew, state’s health and human services commissioner.
“The letter (from Nadeau) sends a really different message,” Sanborn said. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
Sanborn said Mayhew’s memo to the committee, on the other hand, tooks a positive tone and praised progress made by the company.
Mayhew couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday and Friday.
Rotundo said that she also takes the company’s complaint numbers with a grain of salt, and they seem to contradict “what people on the ground are saying.”
But Jim Wood, transportation director at Kennebec Valley, said he met with company officials this week, and they seemed determined to solve core problems, such as computer glitches.
“We’re going to be meeting regularly, and we’re hopeful for a productive outcome,” Wood said.