Change in paratransit funding, private vendors worries Westmoreland officials
A change to future operations of the state’s medical assistant transportation program could cripple Westmoreland County’s paratransit system, local officials worry.
“This could be devastating for us,” said Alan Blahovec, executive director of the Westmoreland County Transit Authority.
Instead of counties overseeing the program that provides free rides to low-income residents for medical treatments and appointments, the new state budget approved by state lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf could allow private vendors to take control.
The county transit authority operates Go Westmoreland, the paratransit system that provides free and subsidized rides for residents who participate in human services programs for handicapped, low-income and elderly riders. Last year, the program provided more than 195,000 shared rides to county residents.
Medical assistance is one of the five classifications of riders eligible for the paratransit system. It accounts for more than half of the transit system’s total usage and the program’s budget. The state funnels about $3 million to the authority for medical assistance rides, Blahovec said. The paratransit system’s total operating budget is about $5.5 million.
Without medical assistance funds, the future of the paratransit system -- which relies on grouping passengers together for shared rides -- could be in jeopardy.
“We won’t be able to provide countywide service if we lose half of our riders,” Blahovec said.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, said the program change was approved at the request of the state’s Department of Human Services. The agency contended it needed to revise how medical assistance transportation funds were doled out because of questionable billing practices by several counties, he said.
Those issues forced the state to repay the federal government about $10 million in penalties, Nelson said.
Westmoreland officials said there have been no improprieties and no questions about it’s billing practices.
Nelson said the impact of the program changes are still unknown.
“We don’t want this policy to slit our throats. If we have to fight this, we’ll fight this,” Nelson said.
The Department of Human Services will seek proposals this year from brokers to oversee the statewide program. Once a broker is selected, that firm will seek proposals from companies to run the medical assistance transportation programs in each county.
The transit authority can bid for the Westmoreland County contract, Nelson said.
Human Services is moving forward with the restructuring, agency spokesman Colin Day said.
“The department is in the process of developing a strategy for implementing this legislation,” he said. “Stakeholder input will be one of the first components of this strategy.”
Westmoreland County Transit Authority took over paratransit operations in 2014 to compliment the medical assistance program that it administered. After a rocky start marred by scheduling issues and customer service problems, authority officials said the paratransit system has operated smoothly for several years.
Still, costs associated with the program caused the authority to reduce service and increase rates. A 10 percent fare hike for paratransit riders is scheduled to start Sept. 1.
The authority also spent more than $2.5 million for new vehicles in its paratransit fleet. It currently uses 48 vans and small buses in addition to private vehicles owned by National Express Transit, the company hired by the authority to operate the system.
“This is all very frustrating,” authority board Chairman Frank Tosto said of the state changes. “We’ve worked really hard to make this program efficient.”