NBC 10 I-Team: Medicaid customers sound off to state about transit troubles

(WJAR)

Rhode Island state regulators are now taking a closer look at a crucial service for low-income elderly and disabled people: rides to take them to and from medical appointments.

The problem, they said, is that shuttle drivers are showing up late or sometimes not showing up at all.

Customers of the state’s Medicaid non-emergency medical transport system, as well as advocates for the elderly and disabled, spoke out during a hearing about proposed Medicaid rule changes in Cranston on Thursday.

“This is a real critical piece for people getting the healthcare that they need,” said Beth Pinkham of the Ocean State Center for Independent Living. "I think what's of even greater concern to us are the complaints that don't get heard because people just stop trying to use a broken system.”

One patient, Diane Gerhard, reached out to the NBC 10 I-Team earlier this summer, after she missed several appointments for dialysis. Gerhard suffers from kidney disease and said she needs dialysis three times each week to stay healthy.

"It was a very negative, unsafe feeling experience,” Gerhard told NBC 10.

The I-Team learned approximately 12,500 people complained about problems with Rhode Island’s non-emergency medical transport during the past two and a half years. Rhode Island’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, or EOHHS, said that number accounts for just a fraction of one percent of all rides provided during that time.

But people at Thursday’s hearing said the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“A lot of people have just given up on the system. They've literally given up on it,” said Ray Gagne of the Rhode Island Organizing Project. Gagne said his organization has been tracking problems with the ride services for the past four years and said it’s the top issues he hears about from seniors and people with disabilities.

Heather Schey, who is visually impaired, attended the hearing with her service dog. Schey said she stopped using the ride service after she waited more than two hours for driver. Her sister, who is also visually impaired, waited more than four hours on another occasion, she said.

"I would say people are tired of the program and they refuse to even fight the system anymore,” Schey said.

The vendor behind the ride service is a company called Logisticare, which is based in Atlanta. It’s a nationwide firm that contracts with states to provide non-emergency medical transport for Medicaid patients. Rhode Island paid Logisticare at least $138 million since 2014, including $24 million in 2017.

Logisticare’s Vice President of Operations, George Sousa, sent NBC 10 the following statement:

“At LogistiCare, we consider one complaint one too many, and always seek to resolve problems quickly and to the members’ satisfaction.

However, it is important to put the total complaints in perspective. We serve approximately 144,000 members who take 2.37 million trips with 74 transportation providers in Rhode Island every year, 99.8 percent of which are completed on-time and without complaint. We have increased member access by 100 percent and virtually eliminated EOHHS’ longstanding problem with unfulfilled trips; more than 1,500 when we assumed management of the state’s program in 2014 to one last year.

This record was compiled during a time when the number of Rhode Island Medicaid recipients grew significantly. To meet demand, we increased the number of network transportation providers by 250 percent and vehicles by 290 percent. In addition, we successfully increased member utilization of public transit from approximately 138,000 trips per year in 2014 to more than 560,000 in 2017, a 307 percent increase that saved state taxpayers more than $9 million.”

Rhode Island's agreement with Logisticare ends this year. A decision from EOHHS on whether to renew the contract, or choose a different vendor, is expected in the next few weeks.

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