PITTSFIELD -- The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and local transportation companies are pushing back against a plan to centralize many of the state's non-emergency medical transportation services, such as rides to and from medical appointments, in central Massachusetts.
Currently, all qualified calls in Berkshire County are handled by the BRTA and brokered to local transportation companies.
But beginning in July, the state expects to handle requests for transport by six different state agencies at the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority in Fitchburg, instead of regionally, as it currently operates, according to BRTA and state officials.
"They're trying to take everything that these five [Regional Transit Authorities] do and put it into one," said Jim Regan, manager of Pittsfield-based County Rainbow Taxi and CrT Cabulance. The state has 15 regional transit authorities, but only five broker Human Services Transportation calls.
The Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Human Service Transportation office, announced plans last August to establish a single authority to handle all transportation calls statewide. The Montachusett Regional Transit Authority in Fitchburg -- the only RTA in the state to pursue the contract -- was awarded the job, and now is in contract negotiations with the state.
The state argues centralizing will "streamline" the service and reduce costs.
The Human Service Transportation office, which oversees these transportation services statewide, handles more than 6 million requests every year made by patients through departments such as the Masschusetts Commission for the Blind, the Department of Mental Health, and The Department of Public Health, for state-paid patient transportation to doctors' offices or other health facilities.
Often, the patients are getting rides for treatment such as chemotherapy or dialysis, according to taxi company officials. In fiscal 2012, the BRTA dispatched 164,792 of these trips -- which is up 33,543 from 2010.
The state contends the centralized brokerage system will not only save the state money, but it will improve services.
"We will now have access to real-time data about consumer use," said Julie Kaviar, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. "Using this data, we plan to have performance management reviews on those specific measures, and identify areas where MART can coordinate with transportation providers or HST can coordinate with agencies to improve service, save money or both."
The BRTA's average cost per trip is the second-highest in the state, behind only the Franklin Regional Transit Authority.
Bob Malnati, assistant administrator at BRTA, points to the county's geography as the reason for the high cost per transport relative to eastern parts of the state.
"How many [patients] from Boston have to travel to Berkshire County?" he asked.
But the state says streamlined data collection will help it shed expenses.
"Another example where we hope to find cost savings is MART's extensive history of actively managing their transportation providers to identify the lowest cost trip. As a result, they have had a considerably lower average trip cost than the other brokers."
But officials with BRTA and the taxi companies it brokers to claim the new, centralized system will prioritize low prices through a competitive bidding process, disregarding the quality of the ride.
"Price is king," said Regan, of County Rainbow. "Quality, all that stuff goes out the window."Although price is obviously a factor in how the BRTA chooses a transportation provider, so is quality. County Rainbow's cars are equipped with GPS navigation and on-board cameras, Regan said. The company takes passengers as far away as Connecticut, he said, making the quality of the ride even more important.
In an email to local vendors, including County Rainbow and CrT Cabulance, BRTA Executive Director Gary Shepard said "the localized relationship between individual regional transportation providers and community agencies provide an efficient, quality-oriented operation."
Shepard argues that Berkshire County is unique, can't be handled as well by an outside broker, and that the switch might not result in the savings the state expects.
"You're talking an area in geographical terms that is as large as the state of Rhode Island," Shepard said. "We weren't asked our opinion."
A total of seven regional transit authorities now oppose the plan, according to Shepard. If there is any appeal process offered, Shepard said the BRTA plans to challenge the state's plan.
Local transportation companies also fear that, in a more competitive bidding process, they could be undercut by companies from places like Springfield.
County Rainbow, which had been planning to expand into North Adams, put the brakes on that process after it learned of the state's plans.
The company is currently the largest provider of transportation for the BRTA, and its manager worries that the new state rules could mean a drop in business -- and possibly jobs.
Regan estimates that the Human Services Transportation calls -- about 36,000 trips per year -- account for about 60 percent of his company's business.
He said his company will wait to see how the system shakes out before expanding.
"It's going to mean a lot of things for the people using it," he said, "and the providers."
To reach Adam Shanks:
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By the numbers ...
n 6,296,376 trips provided by state Human Services Transportation in 2012.
n $122,499,523 was the statewide cost of HST services in 2012.
n $19.46 is the average cost per trip statewide.
n 164,792 trips brokered by the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority.
n $29.69 is the average cost of a trip brokered by the BRTA
n 36,000 is the number of HST trips provided by County Rainbow Taxi/ CrT Cabulance in 2013.