U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud waded into the controversy over the state’s MaineCare rides program Monday, blaming Gov. Paul LePage for what he said has been an inadequate response to problems in a system that’s meant to help low-income patients.

Michaud, who is running for governor, urged LePage in a news release to dump a system that’s “beyond repair” and has caused people to miss crucial medical appointments since it started Aug. 1.

“Mainers deserve more than a government driven by dysfunction where disabled Mainers are being left stranded, waiting for a ride. They deserve real leadership and action from Gov. LePage and his administration,” Michaud said.

Michaud, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, is running against the Republican governor and independent Eliot Cutler in the 2014 race for governor.

A spokesman for the LePage campaign said Michaud should focus on problems that have plagued the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

“Michaud needs to work on fixing Obamacare, which he voted for, before criticizing a department of the state,” said Brent Littlefield, LePage’s senior political adviser.

The federal government reported last week that only 271 Maine residents had been able to enroll for insurance through the troubled HealthCare.gov website from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2, although recent reports suggest the site is working better.

Cutler wrote in an email response to a question that problems in the MaineCare transportation program will not be solved by partisan bickering.

“Now it has become a crisis that is causing real harm to thousands of Maine people and apparently the only ones who are being taken for a ride consistently are the taxpayers. It is not going to be solved by partisan finger-pointing. The governor and Legislature need to get together and fix this problem ASAP,” Cutler wrote.

The program provides rides for low-income Mainers to doctor’s offices, physical therapy and other medical appointments. It has come under fire since Aug. 1, when the Department of Health and Human Services switched from a system in which local nonprofits arranged and provided rides to a regional system in which contractors arrange the rides.

The $40 million-a-year program was established to comply with federal accountability and transparency rules, although states have wide latitude to devise systems that meet the federal guidelines.

Thousands of patients have missed rides, and local nonprofit transportation agencies have complained that the system is cumbersome and inefficient. The contractors have said the system has improved since August.

Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said Michaud’s stance serves two political purposes: it bolsters his image as a practical, homespun politician who solves “real” problems while he criticizes LePage.

“This is something that people can easily visualize: grandma getting left at the curb,” Schmidt said. “It also sets a narrative of this public profile of Michaud delivering for his constituents.”

But Schmidt said he doesn’t know if the issue will have any traction with voters and, with the election a year away, LePage has time to fix it.

“That’s the downside (for Michaud). If the problem goes away, he loses a campaign issue,” Schmidt said.

It remains to be seen whether the administration will take drastic steps to address the problem.

DHHS officials have said the contractor that is covering most of the state, Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, is in danger of losing its contract when a probationary period ends in early December.

But state officials say they remain committed to the regional model, even if the state has to hire new contractors.

Michaud said the state should revert to a system closer to what worked previously, when a patchwork of local nonprofits arranged and provided rides. “Maine should cancel the contract and get our money back,” he wrote.

LePage should be blamed for a program that’s causing harm to Mainers that shows no signs of abating, said state Rep. Sharon Anglin Treat, D-Hallowell.

“The governor should suck it up and say this is not working and go back to the system that was working,” Treat said. “I believe there’s a real lack of understanding and caring of what people are going through.”

But Rep. Joyce Fitzpatrick, R-Houlton, said while the problems are real, she doesn’t believe the governor personally has much to do with the program.

“The buck stops at the top,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I don’t think (LePage) was directly involved.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph

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