Vulnerable Hoosiers still frustrated as state claims overhauled medical transportation system getting better

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- One year after the state overhauled its non-emergency medical transportation system for Medicaid patients, leaders are ironing out major issues that left vulnerable patients stranded.

FOX59 visited the Indiana office of Southeastrans, the Georgia company that signed a four-year, $128 million contract with the state that went into effect June 1, 2018. The call center serves as a hub, where employees schedule rides with a network of transportation providers.

The first year of the overhauled system was marred by major issues, including many clients who were left stranded at home or at medical facilities when their rides didn't show up.

A year later, FOX59 has continued to hear from clients who say their rides are frequently cancelled. One woman said her doctor dropped her after she missed too many appointments. Another woman sent voicemails she received from Southeastrans employees who called 48 hours before appointments, saying that they were struggling to find her a ride and could not guarantee she would be able to get there.

Client Vickie Galloway needs rides three days a week to dialysis appointments. Southeastrans took over her transportation needs, through MDwise, this past January and Galloway started writing down the many times she didn't receive a ride or was picked up late.

"You don't know when they're going to show up, if they're going to show up," Galloway said in March.

Last December, Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) Secretary Dr. Jennifer Walthall apologized to clients who were having trouble using the overhauled system. Walthall told FOX59 that the state had not anticipated how many Medicaid patients did not know they were entitled to free rides to their medical appointments, and demand for rides increased by 350%.

Walthall now says that things are getting better. She noted that last-minute cancellations are down to 3%, which is within national standards.

"Anytime you disrupt an existing system to try to make it better, there are some growing pains. It’s not an excuse for outcomes that were less than desirable, but I certainly appreciate the folks that have grown with us," Walthall said.

Walthall admitted, though, that many Indiana counties still need more transportation providers in order to keep up with demand. This fall, FSSA will pay more money to providers with wheelchair accessible vans, which are in need statewide. Walthall also said that the agency was focusing on nursing home facilities in particular, where issues have been particularly difficult, and has significantly increased reimbursements for friends and family members of Medicaid patients who provide transportation themselves.

"My goal, our goal as an agency, is everybody who needs a ride gets a ride on time, safe, to the things that they need. That’s the goal, and we haven’t been able to say that before as a goal. We didn’t have the network, we didn’t have the visibility, we didn’t have the data to do it, and now we do," Walthall said.

Walthall's staff provided statistics which show that Southeastrans added more than 7,000 new members in both March and April. Overall ridership, however, has dropped since last year, from 15,000 in September 2018 to 11,600 in April 2019. Complaints provided by Southeastrans went down slightly, from 287 in the last four months of 2018, to 257 in the first four months of 2019.

FOX59 started meeting with clients on the days they scheduled rides, to see the system up close. In three different cases, including Galloway's, rides did show up. Clients William Wallace and Erica Herran said they saw fewer cancellations compared to 2018, but they were still not completely satisfied with the system.

"With my anxiety issues, it pumps the blood pressure and I worry. ... It's easier sometimes to just call a Lyft," Wallace said.

"It'll be good and then it'll be bad, it just depends on the day," Herran said.

Galloway opted to start taking the bus instead of waiting for rides that were often late or no-shows. According to Walthall, the state does offer a public transportation option at reduced cost.

"I've heard, 'Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,' but that's not the solution," Galloway said.

On July 1, a state law passed by legislators this session will go into effect. It will force Southeastrans to report additional information the state, and create an oversight committee that will meet twice a year.

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