Lisa Foltz twice found herself stranded in February at Pittsburgh hospitals when rides back to Washington she was expecting from private transportation providers failed to arrive.
The first time, Foltz spent the night in her wheelchair in a waiting room/lounge for families of cardiac patients until she got a ride home 24 hours later.
The second time, she was so upset to learn that no contractor with the private service she expected to transport her home Friday afternoon wouldn’t fetch her until Monday that she began having chest pains and was admitted to the hospital.
“If they don’t have anybody to take the trip, you’re stuck,” Foltz said Monday about her experiences.
“They’re very limited about who they can get.”
Foltz has made it a personal crusade to spread the word about proposed changes to Pennsylvania’s Medical Assistance Transportation Program that she thinks might leave others high and dry, even handing out cards at a local supermarket to people who she said were shocked to learn of the developments.
“People need to know what MATP is,” she said. “They don’t know what those initials are when you put them in the paper. They just know they call Freedom Transit. They don’t know this is their program.
“People just keep getting on the bus and they don’t know what’s happening.”
Those who run county transit agencies were also flummoxed a year ago when they learned the privatization bill was “inserted into the Human Services code at the 11th hour,” said Sheila Gombita, executive director of the Washington County Transportation Authority. Although privatization held incentives of federal funding, Gombita said rollouts under a privatization model in many states had been “disastrous.”
To the shared-ride service provided under the Washington County Transportation Authority, MATP represents 36 percent or a little over $2.5 million. The authority subcontracts with two for-profit carriers, First Transit and Tri-County Access.
The ramifications for other county transportation agencies, which would also lose large chunks of taxpayer funding, became apparent after Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill into law for 2018-19.
Officials of transit agencies operating at the county level feared steering dollars away from transit providers to private contractors would jeopardize shared-ride services beyond the targeted MATP.
The objective of providing nonemergency transportation to those who are on medical assistance is to get people to a doctor so they don’t wait and wind up with catastrophic health problems, the treatment of which is funded with taxpayer dollars. It covers, for example, many kidney dialysis patients.
Proposals from private transit providers were due March 19, and the state originally anticipated negotiating a contract over the summer.
This year, however, in a flurry of legislative activity that marks the end of the state’s fiscal year, both the House and Senate agreed to further study privatization of MATP rather than make sweeping changes.
Putting the brakes on privatization passed the state Senate unanimously, and in the House, only State Rep. Michael Puskaric, R-Elizabeth Township, voted against it. He did not immediately return a call for comment.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Human Services Code bill on June 28, preventing the Department of Human Services from entering into a contract with a transportation broker until an analysis takes place.
The analysis must be completed within 180 days from the effective date of bill, and a preliminary report is to be provided within 90 days.
The Department of Human Services will commission the analysis in coordination with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Aging.
Foltz said she can’t participate in Uber or Lyft’s ride-sharing apps because she needs a van equipped to transport wheelchairs.
A third time she was to be picked up by a private contractor resulted in a no-show driver causing her to miss an appointment in March. She said she wasn’t able to get a new appointment until June.
Whenever possible, she prefers to book medical-related transportation on shared-ride wheelchair vans through Freedom Transit.
“It’s not like we’re going to Heinz Hall for a show,” Foltz said. “We’re going for health reasons. You’re messing with peoples’ lives.”