Botched van service drives mom to do the job herself

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2009 - 9:54 PM

A transportation service that lost the trust of a St. Louis Park mom in getting her 4-year-old autistic boy to day care vows to do better.

About noon Thursday, Amy Lussier steered the family station wagon toward her 4-year-old son's day-care center in St. Louis Park. Four weeks of botched transportation of her son by state-paid van services had culminated the day before in a brief panic, when no one could tell Lussier where the boy was. For one day, at least, she wasn't going to entrust Joey's transport to anyone else.

Since the start of the school year, the boy has been enrolled in morning day care and an afternoon treatment program for autism. The facilities are five miles apart. Because Joey receives state-subsidized health insurance, for which his parents pay $10,000 in premiums a year, the boy qualifies for transportation to the treatment center through a program called Minnesota Non-Emergency Transportation (MNET).

Yet for 18 of the 23 days he has needed the service so far, the drivers have failed to get Joey to the treatment center on time. Usually, they have left him waiting a half hour or longer with his classroom aide. Drivers also have shown up at the treatment center with a broken car seat, a toddler in an infant seat and, in one case, a child riding without a safety seat, said Judy Strommen, clinical manager in the autism treatment program at St. David's Center for Child and Family Development. She's worried children could slide out of the car or wander away if they're not properly monitored and secured.

"We've been really concerned from a safety standpoint," Strommen said. "We're wondering how much these drivers are really aware of the needs of these children."

MNET has been run by a Missouri company, MTM, for five years, and it has an estimated $1.9 million six-month contract with 11 metro counties to get Medical Assistance recipients to appointments. MTM doesn't provide the rides itself -- it hires the bus and van services.

Since early September, Lussier, who lives with her husband and two children in St. Louis Park, has been through three van services, none of which seem to get this ride right. She has learned to dread the noon hour, when the confused drivers and puzzled staff dial her number.

MTM spokeswoman Sandra Whittaker called the complaints an isolated incident. She said the company maintains a "complaint rate" of 0.08 percent, or about 720 complaints out of 900,000 trips provided each year in Minnesota.

"We're going to be watching this situation to make sure everything is resolved," Whittaker said Tuesday. "The most important issue is that her son is safe."

Yet the next day was the worst of all. Joey's day-care teacher called to say the driver was late again, then called back a few minutes later to say he'd been picked up. Then Lussier heard from the driver, who said he couldn't find Joey. It took a half hour of phone calls and worried pacing before Lussier learned that the teacher was wrong and that the driver went to the wrong place twice. Joey was waiting with a classroom aide all along. He got to the treatment center 35 minutes late.

These kinds of problems are inevitable because it's not cost-effective for transportation companies to dedicate a driver and a van for a single passenger on a tight time frame, said Andrew Dmitruk, general manager of NAB Transportation, the company hired to transport Joey over the past week.

"If I'm sending my four-year-old kid over to somebody else, I want to make sure he's picked up on time," Dmitruk said. "I would be pissed off probably more than Amy is now ... I don't blame her at all. It's something that I'm trying to cover, something I'm trying to achieve."

But Lussier is finished with NAB Transportation.

"They've got to make money, I understand that," she said. On the other hand, "You're messing with my kid. That's not OK."

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