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Broker model threatens county transportation system finances

JUDY ELLICHMay 21, 2019

The Somerset County Transportation System may face dramatic cutbacks to its routes or even bankruptcy if a Senate bill doesn’t stop a budget item from reaching fruition, according to the system manager and a state senator.

Last year’s budget included a provision to give oversight of the state’s Medical Assistance Transportation Program to a private broker or brokers. The program provides money for trips to medical appointments through county agencies and third-party vendors.

It was placed in the budget at “the eleventh hour,” according to Michael Villeneuve, manager of the Somerset County Transportation System, because some lawmakers believed that the state could save $15 million in federal funding by going this route. New information seems to point to the state coming up short of funds in the end, he said.

State officials have put out requests for proposals for a broker but have not reached the point where one has been chosen to run the subsidized transit program.

Such a program may be beneficial for the urban areas of the state, but it would be “devastating” for the rural areas, said state Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Bullskin Township. He said there is a likelihood that the Somerset County transit system would have to close its doors because without this subsidy there would not be enough riders using the system to keep it moving forward.

The Medical Assistance Transportation Program is available to pay for trips to medical appointments and pharmacies. The program provides 25 percent of the money needed for counties’ transportation system operations, or shared-ride networks, Villeneuve said.

The Somerset County Transportation System is also supported by funding from the Somerset County Board of Commissioners, Area Agency on Aging of Somerset County, Pennsylvania Lottery, state Department of Human Services and Department of Community and Economic Development, and rider fares and contributions.

“A joint effort of all those programs is what allows us to offer a ride for $1.25 because we are combining many funding sources all in one van,” Villeneuve said. “Pennsylvania is a model for the nation with their shared-ride program across the state. There are 67 counties, and we are one of the most rural, and all 67 counties in Pennsylvania have public transportation. It is amazing. Now, they want to take 25 percent of it away and give it to the lowest bidder.”

In rural counties especially, all the funding sources are needed to provide affordable transportation for riders because of the smaller number of riders, rough terrain, greater distances between amenities and lower incomes, Villeneuve said.

The chosen broker’s main responsibility is ensuring that people are transported by licensed and credentialed transportation providers. Additional responsibilities include provider management, eligibility verification, trip reporting and grievance management.

But that is what each county in Pennsylvania is already doing, Stefano said.

“Our county transportation systems are masters at juggling these funding sources,” he said. “They know their customers; they know the terrain.”

“We (rural Somerset County) can’t take a hit like that (losing control of 25 percent of the subsidies),” said Stefano, who is a co-sponsor of a bill that would slow the process so the Senate can study the consequences of the proposed change. “We want to put a pause on it.”

Senate Bill 390, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County, calls for a one-year delay in the implementation of the brokerage model. The bill is out of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee and ready to go before the Senate for approval, according to the Legislature’s website.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania supports Senate Bill 390, said Brinda Penyak, deputy director of the organization, who agrees with Stefano on the need for county autonomy over mass transit systems.

In Somerset County the transportation system has never denied a request for a ride for medical purposes, Villeneuve said.

“If you call me and say I need to go to the doctor, we’ll find a way. . . . We will guarantee you will get to the doctor,” he said. “That is what we do. We do it all day long. We are not an emergency medical transportation. We know the towns in Somerset County. We know the doctors in Somerset County. We know everything we need to know about Somerset County.”

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