AUGUSTA — The state's struggling non-emergency ride program has made some marginal improvements but is nowhere near where state officials or those who depend upon it and volunteer for it would like.
Lawmakers on the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday revisited issues that started with the $40 million program after the state changed the way the rides — largely paid for under the state's Medicaid program, MaineCare — were assigned to drivers and passengers.
Under the guidance of the federal Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services, the state contracted with brokers to dispatch the rides, changing a 30-year-old system that had relied on local community action programs to arrange the rides.
The new system is the result of changes made after the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services told the state a redesign was necessary to comply with federal regulations to maintain federal matching funds.
The federal government said the previous system created conflicts of interest for the local agencies that could benefit from brokering and providing rides in their areas.
Those community action programs, including Community Concepts and Western Maine Transportation Services, are still providing volunteer drivers, but distribution and dispatching rides have been contracted out.
As soon as the change took place on Aug. 1, confusion ensued, leaving riders stranded, delivered to the wrong location or left waiting to book a ride.
Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, picked up his cellphone Wednesday and dialed the 800-number on one brochure provided to clients. As he held his phone to the microphone on the committee table, the phone on the other end rang just once, ending in a pre-recorded message: "I'm sorry for any inconvenience. Goodbye."
"I've called that number a dozen times in the past hour we have been sitting here," Peterson said. "That's what people have been receiving when they call. I'm a little baffled by that."
David White, president of the Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, the brokerage responsible for the phone number and message, said he couldn't explain it but would get back to Peterson.
White said earlier the average wait times for client calls to CTS call centers, including one in Lewiston that employs about 45 people, had decreased from 23 minutes to two minutes.
Peterson said later that White had explained that the number on the brochure had been changed and thus the message. Still, Peterson questioned the response, noting that the brochure was only out for little more than a month.
The non-emergency ride program shuttles eligible MaineCare clients to and from appointments, as allowed under federal law.
Volunteer driver John Wheeler of Auburn has been involved in taking those with transportation needs to their appointments for more than 14 years through the local Community Concepts program.
Wheeler said earlier this week that problems with the way drivers were being assigned rides, along with incorrect or poor information from the brokering firms, was still causing confusion, costing money and in some cases, putting lives at risk.
One example: On Tuesday, Wheeler was assigned to pick up a 6-year-old boy from a medical appointment in Lewiston and take him back to school in Mechanic Falls. The pickup time was 3 p.m. Wheeler said he knew school was over at 3 p.m. so he questioned the health-care providers about taking the boy back to school. The workers were surprised, too, because they believed the child was to be returned home to his parents. That's what Wheeler did.
"It's the kind of thing that's happening all the time," Wheeler said. "I've never seen anything like it."
On Wednesday, Wheeler went to pick up a client in Poland, but the client had called to cancel earlier in the day and Wheeler was never informed. He said the trip to the client's home would be on his dime.
Wheeler was scheduled to volunteer more than 12 hours of his time and would be reimbursed between $50 and $60 for mileage on his vehicle, he said. He said he and others were increasingly frustrated with ongoing problems.
Lawmakers said Wednesday they had heard story after story similar to Wheeler's.
State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, the Senate chairwoman of the committee, described the scenario as a "debacle." She pressed brokers at the hearing for answers.
"I thought it would have improved much more than it actually has," Craven said later. "I'm dismayed at the lack of progress that's been made on this."
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew reiterated that the state was not satisfied with the quality of work being performed by the contractors and noted that they were in daily communications with them on trying to find solutions.
Craven suggested the companies pay local agencies such as Community Concepts a flat rate to provide rides the way they did in the past until the shortcomings in the new system could be worked out.
She said lawmakers tended to blame the state's Department of Health and Human Services for the problem, but the blame rests on the contracted brokers.
"They signed the contract and took the money and said they could do the work and here we are and they haven't done the work," she said.