Will disabled be left on curb?

A legislative cut has left workers scrambling to fund a system that gives 85,000 rides a month to disabled residents needing transportation to doctors' appointments.

About 1 million rides were arranged last year for disabled metro-area residents who needed transportation to their doctor's appointments. They used a ride-coordinating system financed by the state.

But in a surprise move, the Legislature eliminated the roughly $2.5 million funding for the company that coordinates their rides, effective July 1.

That means metro counties have just weeks to try to cobble together a new system to move thousands of disabled people to often-critical doctor's appointments.

"I can't understand how they expected us to pull this together so quickly," said Monty Martin, human services director for Ramsey County, which averages 20,000 rides a month. "For Ramsey County alone, it would involve hiring 10 staff, introducing a sophisticated phone system we currently don't have, as well as a new computer system allowing us to connect with all the transportation providers."

Other counties are equally unprepared.

"We were contacted by the Minnesota Department of Human Services about five weeks ago, asking what telephone number they should give clients to call," said Jerry Soma, who oversees human services in Anoka County.

"My response was, 'We don't have one!'"

In a swift move of solidarity, nine of the 11 counties that had used the service have proposed temporarily paying for it themselves until they can figure out another plan. County boards in Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka and other counties will consider the proposal Tuesday.

At issue is the Minnesota Non Emergency Transportation program serving the 11-county metro area. It is available to about 220,000 people with physical and mental disabilities enrolled in Medical Assistance. The centralized system was introduced in 2005 to make their ride coordination more efficient, user-friendly and inexpensive, human services officials said. This news comes on the heels of reports that the dial-a-ride program for seniors also is in disarray.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, chief author of the measure to end the funding, said the program's funding was cut to help balance the human services budget and to free up money for rate increases for outstate transportation service.

"It was a nice service but not an essential service in this time of budget deficits," she said.

Sheran said there also were concerns about the quality of some of the providers and possible conflicts of interest with the company operating the program. The program is operated by Medical Transportation Management, a Missouri company that runs similar programs around the country.

But county officials, and those with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, disagree. They note that the company has staff that speak several languages, has a software system that ensures the correct mileage is billed, and offers other features that make it the most efficient way to administer the roughly 85,000 rides each month.

"It was an efficient way to arrange transportation and it worked well," said Brian Osberg, assistant commissioner with Human Services. "It doesn't make sense to have counties come up with their own plans when we can do it through one arrangement."

The Human Services Department, in fact, had proposed expanding the service to outstate Minnesota during the past legislative session, Osberg said. And Gov. Tim Pawlenty singled out the transportation cuts as an area of "significant concern" when he signed the human services bill in May.

Elizabeth Demski, an office specialist at the Minnesota State Council on Disability, said people like her rely on the service. Demski, who suffers from epilepsy, diabetes and leukemia, said she must see medical specialists scattered across the metro area. Having one place to call to coordinate the often-complicated routes is very helpful, she said.

"Just to see my internist is three buses," Demski said. "That's more than an hour of travel time if I hit everything right. What I like about this service is they pick me up at my door and drop me off at the door of my doctor's office."

That said, the state disability council has received complaints about how some clients are treated by drivers as well as some delays, said Joan Willshire, executive director of the council. But that's a different issue than cutting funding with little advance notice.

"There was no planning whatsoever," she said.

The cost of running the program was $5 million a year, shared equally by the state and federal government, according to the human services department. Counties are prepared to pick up the cost for the remainder of 2009, until they can figure out how -- or whether -- to create their own program.

For Hennepin County, the estimated $947,000 cost to continue using the service for the next six months may actually be cheaper than hiring and training 17 staff members to run the program and getting the needed computer software, said Bill Brumfield, county human services director.

The county would get reimbursed half of the cost from Washington, he said.

"This is a big deal,'' Brumfield said. "If you're sick and need to get back and forth the doctor, this is how you'd do it."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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