How much longer companies that arrange MaineCare rides have to correct problems before contracts are canceled is still unknown, but legislators say they are keeping the heat on in an effort to improve service for patients — after six weeks of Medicaid clients lodging thousands of complaints about missing rides to doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions and other medical services.

The state has wide latitude to cancel the contracts with the brokers that started on Aug. 1, but it’s unclear whether the state is close to canceling contracts or if the companies have more leeway.

State officials were noncommittal Thursday, but they have said previously that the companies must adhere to strict standards or face termination of their contracts, which can happen at any time.

In mid-August, Mary Mayhew, health and human services commissioner, said the companies had “weeks” to make substantial improvements. Weeks have passed, and the state has not indicated whether enough has been done to upgrade service.

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

However, a dramatic moment in the Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Wednesday has some legislators questioning the abilities of Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, which recently won a $28.3 million contract to arrange rides for 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, chairman of the health committee. “I’d give them two more weeks to get it straight.”

Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, stunned the committee on Wednesday by calling a CTS number listed on a brochure, the same number that patients were directed to call to arrange a ride. After calling a dozen times during the meeting, only to receive an automated message repeatedly, Peterson held up his smartphone and played the automated message for the audience. The message said, “I’m sorry for any inconvenience. Goodbye,” before disconnecting the caller.

David White, president of CTS, did not have an answer for Peterson immediately during the hearing, but in an email response to questions from the Press Herald on Thursday, he said a wrong phone number was mistakenly included in an electronic version of a CTS brochure a few weeks ago. While the wrong phone number was distributed by mistake, it has  been corrected, and was not printed, White wrote. In addition, the correct number is on the MaineCare web site.

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

When asked why callers, after dialing the incorrect phone number, didn’t hear a message telling them to call the correct phone number for a ride, White wrote, “(The) phone number does not belong to us, so we can’t put a message on it.”

After being asked by the Press Herald about whether CTS should have asked the owner of the phone number to include a message telling people the right phone number for MaineCare rides, White replied, “We’ll look into your suggestion.”

Peterson said CTS should have done everything possible to let patients know the correct number to call, and that having an incorrect number out there without redirecting patients was a major misstep by CTS. He said clients also have complained about hourslong wait times in attempts to get through to CTS, exhausting their cellphone minutes. He said he’s worried 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.

Peterson stopped short of saying the contracts should be canceled, and he said CTS should be given more time to improve.

Martins said the phone number error raises concerns, and the state is asking many of the same questions of CTS as the Press Herald.

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

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, a member of the health committee, said perhaps the problem lies more in the complicated system created by the state, rather than the contractors.

“It may not have as much to do with the competence of the companies,” Stuckey said. “We’ve made this way too complicated.”

Martins, however, said the state is confident that the system will work with the correct contractor. CTS won the contract by outbidding other companies in six of the eight regions of the state. Atlanta-based LogistiCare outbid others in the York County region, while Penquis, a local nonprofit, was the only local provider to win a contract, in the Bangor area. Legislators said there were far fewer complaints about Penquis, which also arranged and provided ride service 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. Under the new system, brokers such as CTS and LogistiCare arrange the rides, while local providers still drive patients to their appointments. The switch to a regional broker system was spurred by federal government rules on transparency and accountability, although states have much flexibility in how to comply with those rules.

Rep. Carol McElwee, R-Caribou, and also a member of the health committee, said the situation is a “mess,” and she expects improvements by CTS 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.”

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