State delays change to Westmoreland’s paratransit system
A proposed state change local officials said could devastate Westmoreland County’s paratransit system for low income and elderly riders has been delayed.
Gov. Tom Wolf late last week signed legislation authorizing a six-month study of the plan approved last year giving oversight of the state’s medical assistance transportation program to private brokers. The program provides door-to-door free and subsidized rides to doctor offices and other medical services.
“This is what we’ve been advocating for, to study it and look at the overall effect,” Westmoreland County Transit Authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec said.
Money for medical assistance transportation is now dispersed to counties to administer and pay for the programs. In Westmoreland County, medical assistance accounts for half of nearly 200,000 trips provided last year by Go Westmoreland, the county’s shared-ride paratransit program.
A potential loss of medical assistance funding could have gutted the shared ride system that provides subsidized rides to clients who receive benefits from four other social service programs, Blahovec said.
Westmoreland County receives about $3.3 million a year in state funding to operate the medical assistance transportation service. That money accounts for more than half of the $5.1 million budget for all paratransit programs.
“We would have been looking at service cuts and fare increases,” Blahovec said.
As part of last year’s budget bills, state lawmakers approved a change that directed private brokers to be hired to oversee medical assistance transportation programs throughout Pennsylvania, essentially adding another layer of oversight. A broker could decide to strip the local medical assistance transportation program from the transit authority and hire another provider, officials feared.
The state Department of Human Services solicited proposals from brokers this year and a contract was expected to be awarded this summer, with implementation set for July 2020.
The legislation signed into law last week puts the brakes on that implementation. It calls for completion of a study to determine the impact a change to private brokers will have on transportation services.
Concerns over federal reimbursements led to the initial change and the potential loss of those funds is still an issue, according to state Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, who for the last year has sought to delay the administrative change.
“Something is amiss in that program and that’s why an audit is important to determine if this is a Department of Human Services issue or a county issue,” Nelson said. Nelson was one of the cosponsors of the bill to delay and study the proposed change.
“A statewide switch to a broker model may not be right for all of Pennsylvania,” Nelson said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .