SOUTHERN INDIANA (WAVE) - It’s the part of healthcare that should be the easiest.
But for many in Indiana, it has become the toughest.
”I have been fighting this fight for two years,” former social worker Erin Stennett said, fighting back tears. “This could be anybody’s loved ones, and it’s not right, it’s just not right.”
This isn’t a story about the rigors of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. This is a story about the overlooked act of just getting to the doctor.
”I know there’s a lot of people now who have died over not being picked up,” Theresa Pate said. She is married to a man who relies on Southeastrans to get to important medical appointments.
For people who are poor, have disabilities, or are medically fragile in Indiana, getting to the doctor is often impossible.
”I have Spina Bifida, hydrocephalus, asthma, COPD, diabetes,” Medicaid patient Holly Cunningham said. “I’ve been left high and dry numerous times. I can’t even tell you how many times where I have been left, or they showed up two hours late, or not showed up at all. Probably 30, 40, 50, I mean over the course of the last three years, I can’t even count.”
She’s talking about Southeastrans, the Georgia-based company that got a four-year, $128 million contract with Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration to take over the system of rides to medical appointments for Hoosiers on Medicaid. Southeastrans was given an F rating by Indiana’s Better Business Bureau. For others the grade is more like incomplete because they keep getting canceled or stood up.
”You think you have a ride scheduled with a transportation company, and then a lot of times they will not show up,” Stennett said. “They will cancel last minute. They are late. They may take you to your appointment and then you don’t have a ride home.”
In Stennett’s tenure as a social worker, she said she could write a book about what happened to her clients. Her book would be non-fiction, and filled with horror stories about what happens to people right after they have to cancel important appointments.
”She received a call saying, ‘We’re sorry we could not find you a ride,’” Stennett said, recalling one of her clients. “She called me Monday morning in tears, ‘Erin I don’t know what to do.’ She was put in ICU in kidney failure. She spent at least a week in the hospital and never went home again. Within three weeks she was gone and died. I was heartbroken.”
To get a better idea of how often riders are stranded, WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters analyzed the state medical transportation reports. The most recent one filed, from November, showed 2,900 trips not provided because no provider was assigned, and 116 cases of providers no-showing. In October, 3,446 trips were not provided because no provider was assigned and there were 150 provider no-shows.
Theresa Pate, whose husband is non-verbal after a stroke, said the complaint investigations mean nothing because, she said, Southeastrans lies in their reports. She cited one instance where Southeastrans no-showed her husband and then claimed the driver was the one stood up.
”No, I said, ‘You weren’t at my house because the home healthcare aid was standing there watching,’” Pate said, adding that when she filed a complaint with the state about it, she said they followed up one lie with another one. ”When I sent the complaint to the state, they tried to say they transported him to that appointment the next week, that they came and got him and took him to that appointment.”
So, what did Southeastrans have to say about all this? Its Indiana director never responded to WAVE 3 News’ phone messages or emails. WAVE 3 News also requested an interview with Indiana’s FSSA in March, and even submitted questions at their request. Weeks later, WAVE 3 News received a statement from spokesman Jim Gavin, who wrote there are “supply challenges when it comes to the network of transportation providers available to serve the increased member demand.”
Gavin also wrote that while Medicaid ridership has increased to more than 65,000 per month, the drivers network is 1,650. The numbers of no-shows and cancellations were apparent. What’s harder to determine are the numbers of people who’ve gotten worse or died as a direct result of missing scheduled appointments.
”Has your health ever suffered immediately after one of these times where you had to get to the doctor but they left you?” WAVE 3 News asked Holly Cunningham.
“Yes my shunt failed a couple years ago,” she said. “I used to see a neurosurgeon and they were supposed to be transporting me to Norton Emergency room and they didn’t show up.”
Added Pate: ”A friend of mine said her friend was supposed to have had two rides from them. But they canceled on her and just a few weeks later she passed away for an undetected heart condition and she told me I swear if she had gotten to the doctor they would have caught this.”