|8/28/2014 11:31:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Waldo CAP Takes Reins from Troubled Ride Broker
|Call center employees at Waldo CAP’s new Midcoast Connector ride-dispatching facility in Belfast (Photo By Andy O’Brien)|
by Andy O’Brien"When you're talking to MaineCare members, you're talking to a population that has some struggles," said Keith Small, Waldo Community Action Partners (CAP)'s executive director. "They're low income in order to be eligible for MaineCare and they're obviously going to health appointments, so they have some health issues."
At a brand-new state-of-the-art call center at the Wentworth Event Center on Route 1 in Belfast, several dispatchers sit at cubicles taking calls from residents seeking rides from all over the midcoast. On August 1, after a rush to install computers, software and a new phone system, Waldo CAP launched the Midcoast Connector, a new brokering system for non-emergency rides covering Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties as well as the towns of Harpswell and Brunswick. Waldo CAP's new contract with the state to provide rides for the region follows a turbulent year with an out-of-state dispatch brokering system that left many clients stranded.
"We have MaineCare members that have had a hard year," said Small. "Ever since it shifted last August 1, 2013, it's been a mixed-up process."
Last year after the state Department of Health and Human Services privatized the ride-brokering system and awarded the contract to Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions (CTS) to comply with new federal rules, the normally predictable ride program fell into disarray.
There were widespread reports of patients missing their rides to doctors' appointments, cancer treatments and dialysis. Addresses were entered in wrong, rides were double-booked and patients were unable to reach a dispatcher. In January, after a probationary period and a partisan battle over the new broker system between Democrats and the LePage administration, DHHS finally announced its decision not to renew its $23.8 million contract with CTS.
It was upon reading coverage of the CTS boondoggle that midcoast resident Michael Hallundbaek decided to propose a local solution that employed local people. After Hallundbaek, a business development consultant, presented his plan to Small, they submitted a joint proposal to DHHS and were eventually awarded a $3.9 million contract to broker rides for Region 5.
"We call it Mainers helping Mainers," said Hallundbaek, who is now the director of Midcoast Connector. "We're trying to help our friends and neighbors in a very professional manner by establishing this broker system in the local area."
Hallundbaek noted that Midcoast Connector operates under a different business model than CTS in that rather than having dispatchers from out-of-state brokering rides for area residents, the Belfast call center has more local staff, with 17 employees, for the region. During CTS's short stint, it employed 45 call-center employees in Lewiston to serve every region of the state except the Bangor area and York County.
Midcoast Connector's budget is larger than the $3.1 million the state allotted to CTS for the region. Hallundbaek said that the call center is currently scheduling about 4,000 to 5,000 trips a week. Prior to CTS taking over, the agency scheduled 300 rides per day just for Waldo County, but the number plummeted to a low of six rides per day last August due to the dispatching snafu after CTS took over.
Transportation Operations Manager Jaime Parsons said that while some of CTS's problems were fixed, she estimated that ridership only recovered by about 85 percent after many frustrated riders dropped out of the system. Hallundbaek said that the goal of the Midcoast Connector is also to ensure that rides are coordinated in a way that encourages people to get rides with friends, neighbors or relatives, who are reimbursed for mileage, or "piggy-back" rides on regular scheduled transportation routes. Previously CTS had been criticized for deploying a lot of more expensive taxis, which critics said could have been avoided if ride-shares were coordinated better.
"This system is set up in a way to be most effective cost-wise for the taxpayer because it's a taxpayer-run program," said Hallundbaek. "It's designed in a way to provide a brokerage system in a central place that brokers rides at the least expensive mode."
According to Office of MaineCare director Stefanie Nadeau, so far her office has received only "handfuls of complaints" about the brokers who have taken over for CTS. She said Midcoast Connector is one of the two ride brokers (out of three) that has so far met the contractual metrics set by the state.
"Midcoast Connector has been very successful from a call-center perspective and had a very low percentage of missed rides," said Nadeau.
So far, according to volunteer driver Neal Harkness of Belfast, the system has been more accountable than the previous model.
"The biggest difference that I see right off the bat is that when I call and say I've got a problem, it gets fixed," said Harkness. "With CTS, problems never got fixed."
In June DHHS came under fire for paying CTS an additional $5.5 million on top of its $2.1 million monthly payments. The news emerged months after it was revealed that CTS failed to secure performance bonds to prevent the state from shouldering additional financial risks. Nadeau said that the additional payments were necessary to ensure that the call center remained operational and the ride providers were paid during the transitionary period following the non-renewal of the contract.
However, this time Small claims that the state has done its due diligence, including requiring that the agency secure the performance bonds up front.
"There is no question that [DHHS] gave us an incredible readiness review test," said Small. "I've been involved in a lot of federal and state contracts working with community action programs and this has been by far the most complex project that I have ever been involved in."
Call for Volunteer Drivers
In the meantime, Waldo CAP is putting out the word that they are always looking for volunteer drivers to join the 14 part-time drivers who help drive people in Waldo County. Currently there is only one volunteer driver for the non-emergency ride program in all of Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties as well as the towns of Brunswick and Harpswell, so volunteer drivers are always in demand.
"The more volunteers we have the better," said Small. "Some of the folks who do it view [the mileage stipend] as income, but given the cost of running the vehicle, they're really helping us. They're an integral part of the program and we could always use more."
To apply to be a volunteer driver in Waldo County, contact Waldo CAP in Belfast at 338-4769. Residents in Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties should contact MCH in Rockland at 596-6605.
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