Publicized complaints about a medical transport firm have prompted the Anne Arundel County Health Department officials to "take a closer look" at Southeast Transit/Metro Access, they say, though they remain convinced the firm is performing satisfactorily.
The department's response Friday fell short of what was wanted by some patients, employees and county officials who called for a full investigation into the company. They have accused Metro Access of leaving patients needing rides to wait for hours, failing to pay staff on time and punishing them for revealing shortcomings of the operation.
Company President James McLary did not return telephone calls.
His company signed a new $720,000 contract with the county that goes into effect next month.
Doug Hart, the county's deputy health officer for operations, said the county has received relatively few complaints -- three in the past six months for more than 36,000 rides -- and has little reason to believe the Alexandria, Va.-based company is not fulfilling its contract to transport Medicaid and welfare recipients to medical appointments.
He said the county has set and maintained high standards and urged people with complaints to call the Health Department.
Some patients said they are afraid to call the Health Department because they fear retribution and even worse service from the company.
Metro Access managers have yelled at them on the phone when they have called to complain, some patients said. Two company employees who were fired Thursday when they refused to sign confidentiality agreements said they were told to send phony transportation records to the county and not to pass along complaints.
'This is enough'
Other patients said they did report problems to county officials.
"I complained to the county so many times," said 35-year-old kidney-transplant patient Maria Gomez. "I probably called 10 times since January. It got to the point that I just said, 'This is enough.' Nothing was done. The vans were nasty. They made me miss my appointments. These people drive like maniacs. I drive myself now even though I'm not supposed to."
Janet Fadely said she had called the county to complain several times since January after the company stranded her at night without a ride home from doctors' offices three times and she had to call friends or a taxi.
"A lot of us patients feel we will be retaliated against if we complain," Fadely said. "A lot of people say they can't risk losing this ride. It's a shame. But I started calling. They left me waiting two hours once when I only had 45 minutes of oxygen left." Her doctor's office got more oxygen for her.
"I don't know about them only receiving three complaints, because I know more people than that who have called," Fadely said.
Sarah Hakulin and her son Michael said they have called the department numerous times since January after Michael, who is paraplegic, became stranded on the van's broken hydraulic lift until the operator could get it working again, and about rides arriving late.
Dorothy Skahill said she called Monday to seek transportation to a rehabilitation center for her son and express her concern that the vans are not safe.
"I told [the department] some of the drivers are terrible," she said. "I worry about getting home and getting home safely. There are a lot of people that are complaining."
Told to keep quiet
Former employees Phyllis Schmitz and Don Schneider said they disobeyed company orders to not talk to the county and also called the Health Department. Schmitz, who worked in the company's Anne Arundel headquarters on Veterans Highway in Millersville, said company managers told her not to tell concerned patients whom to call in the county when they asked.
"They made it clear I was to keep the complaints quiet," Schmitz said. "There wasn't a day that I didn't get at least five complaints. And these past six months have been really bad, because the vans seem to keep breaking down."
Hart said the Health Department will look into whether it has been receiving accurate information from the company and said the county is putting its telephone number in mailings and giving it to clients when they sign up for services.
Hart also said his department routinely looks at the company's logbooks and metes out $25 fines for each time the firm is late or otherwise violates contract terms.
In the first year of the contract with the county, from mid-1996 to the middle of last year, Metro Access was fined $10,600. Since July, it has been fined $4,275. That translates into about one known late pickup for every day's 200 rides, a number Hart said the department considers low.
Some county officials said the Health Department should be taking potential abuse and mismanagement more seriously.
"I would prefer the Health Department [to] say they are investigating and getting to the bottom of this," said County Councilwoman Diane R. Evans. "That's the response I want to hear.
"We as a government need to go the extra mile to better understand how folks have been treated, because some of these people are vulnerable and disadvantaged," she said. "Whether it's one person or 10 people, everything must be done to address this."
County Councilman Bert L. Rice also called for a full-scale investigation of the company.
"I think the Health Department really needs to dig into this contract with some detail," he said. "If some people are saying they feel they can't pass their complaints along or aren't being heard, I find that very disturbing."
Pub Date: 6/14/98