AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s struggling nonemergency ride program has made some marginal improvements but is nowhere near where state officials or those who depend on and volunteer for it would like.

On Wednesday, lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee revisited problems that arose in 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 previously relied on local community action programs to arrange the rides.

The federal government said the previous system created conflicts of interest for local agencies that could benefit from brokering and providing rides in their areas.

Those community action programs — including Community Concepts and Western Maine Transportation — are still providing the volunteer drivers but distribution of those rides has been contracted out.

Immediately after the change confusion ensued, leaving riders stranded or in some cases delivered to the wrong location or left for long stretches on the phone waiting to book a ride.

During Wednesday’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting, Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, picked up his cellphone and dialed the toll-free number on one brochure provided to clients. Holding his phone to the microphone in the committee, Peterson demonstrated that after one ring, the number yielded a prerecorded 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.”

The nonemergency ride program shuttles eligible MaineCare clients to and from various medical and other appointments as allowed under federal law.

Volunteer driver John Wheeler of Auburn has been involved in bringing those with transportation needs to their appointments for more than 14 years through the local Community Concepts program.

Wheeler said problems with the way drivers are being assigned rides along with incorrect or poor information from the brokering firms is still causing confusion, costing money and in some cases putting lives at risk.

As an example, Wheeler said he was assigned Tuesday to pick up a 6-year-old boy from a medical appointment in Lewiston and bring him back to school in Mechanic Falls. But the pick-up time was 3 p.m. Wheeler said he knew school was over at 3 p.m., so he questioned the health care providers about bringing the boy back to school. The workers were surprised too, as 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 DHHS officials 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 DHHS 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.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.