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Oregon lawmakers probe failures in ride system for low-income medical patients

Close-up of a pregnant woman during medical visit.
File photo.
Low-income Oregonians are supposed to have access to transportation to and from medical appointments. Critics say the system isn't working as intended.

Low-income Oregonians who rely on state-provided rides to medical appointments are often left waiting for hours, according to both advocates as well as the agency that oversees the system. And the state doesn't know how many rides are successfully completed.

Problems with the system were outlined during a Thursday meeting of the Oregon House Interim Committee on Human Services.

It’s called “non-emergency medical transport” and it offers Oregon Health Plan members a way to get to doctors appointments. But not only are rides often late or drivers simply don't show up, advocates say the vehicles sometimes aren’t equipped to meet the patient’s mobility needs.

"If a person is not able to get to their appointments in a timely fashion or at all, then clearly that's not going to allow them to proceed with their care," said Nicole Palmateer Hazelbaker, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Area Agencies on Aging and Disabilities.

When Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane asked Oregon Health Authority director Pat Allen if he knew what portion of non-emergency medical rides were successfully completed, Allen said he could only offer anecdotal information.

“I can’t give you a real number,” said Allen, who added that the state doesn’t track how many rides are completed because the contractors who provide them often don’t compile the data.

Allen said he thinks most rides are successful. But, he added, “the exceptions are notable and they’re not a vanishingly-small fraction. I think that there are places in the state where the percentage of problems is big enough to be notable and big enough to be a meaningful problem that needs to be addressed.”

Allen also said the Oregon Department of Justice is looking into complaints of racism in how the ride providers are selected.

The inability of the state to consistently provide rides to low-income medical patients has been a problem for years, said Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River.

"We are really struggling with access to non-emergency medical transport all across the state," said Williams, who called it a "crisis."

Allen said one reason why it's such a complicated problem to solve is that there are several different levels of bureaucracy involved in providing a single ride: The Oregon Health Authority contracts with Coordinated Care Organizations, which contract with transportation companies, which in turn contract with individual drivers.

"Each of those relationships is a place where things can break down," said Allen. "And they do break down."

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December, 2018. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”