Blue Cross takes back control of rural Medicaid rides

By Don Davis

Complaints have piled up since Jan. 1 that rural Minnesota’s poor, disabled and elderly struggled to arrange rides to their medical appointments, but Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota decided to fix that on Thursday by reverting to a system that worked in 2013.

Blue Cross announced it will again coordinate Medicaid transportation needs throughout much of rural Minnesota, like it did before it hired MTM, Inc. to handle patients’ ride scheduling.

Since the first of the year when patients had to call St. Louis-based MTM to schedule rides, horror stories built up about drivers not showing up, vehicles arriving without the ability to handle wheelchairs and other issues that many called life-threatening.

“We sincerely apologize to our members for any confusion or for any transportation difficulties,” Blue Cross said in a statement.

Blue Cross handles Medicaid recipient rides in much of rural Minnesota, although other insurers take care of many in the northeast and southeast. MTM long has held the contract to coordinate Medicaid transportation in the Twin Cities area. Thursday’s Blue Cross decision will not change anything there.

Blue Cross and MTM indicated it was a mutual decision to end their relationship. Blue Cross said it will take over transportation scheduling Friday.

“The coordination of all non-emergency medical transportation for members enrolled in state public health programs will take place through our Blue Plus HMO,” said a statement from Blue Cross, which refused to make an official available for an interview. “We believe this decision is in the best interest of those members who rely on transportation services to get them to and from their medical appointments.”

Blue Cross long handled the scheduling, but decided late last year that MTM would be more efficient. MTM handles similar services in states across the country.

When MTM took over, it offered contracts to transportation companies around rural Minnesota, but with 30 percent less pay than when the companies dealt directly with Blue Cross. The companies, members of the R80 Medical Transportation Coalition, also refused to work with MTM, saying they do not like how it does business.

The transportation services’ decision to not deal with MTM forced MTM to find new firms for the transport duties, including some start-ups with little or no experience in the field.

“Blue Cross will seek to reinstate all previous agreements with medical transport providers to work directly with Blue Plus,” the Blue Cross statement said.

R80 leader Dave Pinske, owner of AmeriCare Mobility Van in Mankato, said the group’s members are thrilled to get back the 700-ride-a-day business serving Medicaid patients. R80 members have more than 500 employees around Minnesota, he said.

“As happy as I am, I can tell you our customers will be much more happy,” Pinske said. “This is a client-focused business.”

Jeff Nustad, who with wife Lori runs Lakes Medi-Van in Detroit Lakes, recited a long list of horror stories from his former customers, who now again are customers.

For instance, Nustad said, he had a report of a patient in a Menahga nursing home who was supposed to receive a ride to a dialysis session. The driver never showed up

Another example he related was from a Worthington patient confined to an electric wheel chair who said a taxi cab ill equipped to carry the device arrived to pick her up.

Carolyn Kile delivered one of the more extreme stories. She said that after making 15 calls to schedule a ride, the driver arrived too late for her to make her appointment.

“I felt like I hit a brick wall at 500 mph and went splat,” the 72-year-old Sebeka woman said.

Right away, she began contacting MTM to arrange a ride next week. She said that she already made a half-dozen calls to arrange a ride to her next appointment in Fargo.

MTM Vice President Phil Stalboerger, who works with more than 60 MTM employees in West St. Paul, said his company had not hear many stories like Kile told.

Stalboerger, a former Blue Cross lobbyist, said MTM is working with Blue Cross on the transition back to the old way of doing things.

He said that before the Thursday announcement MTM was adding transportation providers “left and right” and was hiring people for its West St. Paul call center.

Stalboerger said MTM was smoothing the problems and would have operated more efficiently than had been happening. With Medicaid transportation just one part of the medical transportation industry, a state task force already is examining how to improve service across the board.

“The state will have to decide whether or not they can find a way to be more efficient,” Stalboeger said.

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