HARRISBURG — Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want the state to block a move to replace county management of Medicaid-funded bus rides.

The trade group representing the bus systems that now manage the service warn that the switch could mean increased costs and worse service for customers.

State officials have said the move will save money and the state already has put out a request for proposals for a plan to replace county management of the system by one in which the state’s Medicaid busing will be managed by two or three operators.

“We cannot allow the state to dismantle a system that works simply because some bureaucrats claim they could save money when they haven’t looked at the true cost to our communities,” said Democratic state Rep. Frank Burns of Cambria County. “Before any contracts are issued, DHS needs to bring local transit agencies to the table to negotiate the best way to provide Medical Assistance transportation moving forward.”

Last week, Burns was part of a group of eight Democratic state representatives from western Pennsylvania that announced they were urging the state to delay the change. Others who signed that letter included: Ryan Bizzarro of Erie, H. Scott Conklin of Centre County, Patrick Harkins of Erie, Mark Longietti of Mercer County, Robert Merski of Erie County, Joseph Petrarca of Westmoreland County and Chris Sainato of Lawrence County.

Colin Day, a Department of Human Services spokesman, has said that the agency disagrees with the suggestion that the move won’t save money and the state is moving forward with the proposal. Asked this week for the status of the plan, Day provided documents dated Dec. 21 showing that the state is seeking applicants to manage the Medicaid busing program. Those applications are due March 5.

Under details of the plan provided by Human Services, the state would be divided into three regions. Potential operators are allowed to apply to manage more than one region. The state won’t award all three regions to a single operator.

Those regions would be: a western region, serving 682,270 riders; a central region serving 495,508 riders; and an eastern region serving 1.61 million riders. Crawford County has 19,193 riders eligible for Medicaid busing.

The move to merge the management of the Medicaid busing was included in a broader budget bill passed in June. Proponents say that the move will provide the state with $15 million more in federal funding.

The Medicaid program accounts for 30 percent of the riders in the state’s ride-sharing program, according to the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association, which has been lobbying to get the regional management plan derailed. If those riders are forced to begin using another bus service, then the costs of offering rides to the other 70 percent of passengers will likely increase, according to the transportation system trade group.

Under the other programs, like the Lottery-funded ride share for seniors, the state covers 85 percent of the fare and the passenger pays 15 percent. Medicaid rides for medical treatment and doctor appointments are free to the rider.

The Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association, which represents the transit agencies now managing ride-share bus services across the state, has calculated that the switch will actually end up costing the state $31.5 million.

It could create other problems as well, such as forcing riders to call different phone numbers to make trip reservations based on where they need a ride to, something that could be “very confusing" for seniors and persons with disabilities, according to a summary of the trade group's position.

In a letter addressed to Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, the Democratic lawmakers said the plan amounts to a “monumental shift” away from the current busing system “which operates at a local level and accounts for unique geographic needs.”

They asked that if the plan isn’t halted that “at a minimum,” the state should take its time to thoroughly evaluate bids.

They’re not the only voices in the General Assembly calling for a pause.

Three Republican state representatives — Aaron Bernstine of Beaver County, Jonathan Fritz of Wayne County and Pam Snyder of Greene County — have circulated a memo to other lawmakers seeking support for a bill that would order Human Services to delay the plan until there’s been a review of its impact.

“Before making a shift of this magnitude, I believe it is important that we fully understand the potential impacts to ensure accountability to taxpayers,” they wrote in that Jan. 29 memo.

Bernstine said Tuesday that the state’s plan is a “one-size fits all” solution that may not serve all counties well.

“Each county has different needs,” he said, adding that counties should be allowed to opt of the plan if they don’t want to be included in it. 

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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Riders eligible for Medicaid-funded busing, by county

County Riders eligible for Medicaid busing
Cambria 32,778
Crawford 19,193
Lawrence 21,521
Mercer 26,753
Montour 2,863
Northumberland 21,035
Snyder 6,119
Somerset 15,063
Union 5,336
Venango 12,745
Warren 8,615
Source: Department of Human Services)