Man driven by altruism

Contract: The owner of a medical transport company offers its services at a bargain rate, but Anne Arundel County officials aren't enthusiastic.

May 07, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Happy, a 78-year-old retired railroad worker only his wife knows as Robert Knight, finds out this week if Anne Arundel County has awarded him its yearly contract to drive sick people to the doctor.

He probably won't get it. He never does.

It's not that his Pasadena medical transport company, Happy-Go-Lucky, asks for too much money. If anything, it asks for too little. Every year, Knight bids almost $200,000 less than other companies for the $700,000 contract.

He just wants to make people, especially seniors, happy, he says.

But the concept of helping people regardless of profit hasn't impressed county bureaucrats who worry about selecting reliable companies and choosing the lowest "reasonable" bid. The county has raised questions about whether Knight's altruistic business can handle the large county load and he has lost points toward contract awards for his technical presentations.

"He is sincere," said county purchasing agent Jim Ryan, who is overseeing the committee reviewing proposals. "There's no doubt about that. But it's certainly hard to imagine someone who doesn't want to make money."

Knight, who started his transport company for the same reason he drove to nursing homes to do seniors' taxes for free, is used to this. He realized a long time ago that doing things for the right reasons has an unforeseen cost. Most people don't believe you.

In 11 years of driving almost 200 private patients to appointments each month, Knight might not have made money, but neither has he generated a single complaint.

The same cannot be said for Virginia-based Metro Access/Southeast Transit, which has held the county contract since 1996. Last year, the company bid $720,000.

Metro Access lost a similar contract with the state Department of Transportation in August 1997 after five months when the company's drivers consistently showed up late, if at all, for appointments.

Almost a dozen clients in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties filed lawsuits against Metro Access in the past several years, charging that it has failed to pay bills and follow safety guidelines and has promoted dangerous driving. In June, three Metro Access employees walked off the job when their paychecks bounced for the fourth time.

Metro Access President Jim McLary did not return phone calls from The Sun. But court records show that the company has denied allegations of wrongdoing. In the past, McLary has said that his company was working to improve service and stop complaints.

"People who use the county service call us all the time and say, why can't you come pick us up?" Knight said recently while manning the phones. "Somebody's got to help these people."

A recent informational meeting didn't make him feel much better about the other companies vying for the contract.

"No one in that meeting seemed to be concerned about the people," he said.

"They were all sitting around talking about how they can get out of the services, saying they don't want to allow people in an emergency to call at the last minute."

It's no surprise to those who know him, Knight says, that he and his wife, a retired schoolteacher, enjoy spending their retirement answering such calls. After 40 years running a locomotive for Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, transportation is in his blood. His grandfather drove a stagecoach.

Knight's seven part-time drivers are mostly seniors, people who were looking for work when they were forced out of other jobs. The idea struck him one day while making his tax service rounds to the elderly.

"One day I asked a woman why she doesn't get out more. That's when I found out how much it was costing them," he said. Most companies charge almost $70 for a round trip while he charges $46. Some people he doesn't charge. "I said, `Well, heck, I can get a van and do it for them for the cost of the expenses.' "

Knight's proposal

Knight knows that he can't compete with the glossy brochures of bigger companies, or their lawyer-prepared proposals. Questions invariably arise as to whether Knight can handle the county load of more than 4,000 passengers a month.

"He's a good guy, and he's local, and he's been around for a long time," Ryan said. "But he is small."

Knight says he would make his drivers full time and add vans and personnel. This year, he also has proposed dividing the county ridership and offered to cover 56 percent. That's similar to how the county ran the program before it was privatized in 1993. No patient would be more than 20 minutes away from a ride, he says.

"It'll never work the way they have it now," he said recently from the van after dropping off passengers. "It's just not feasible to cover everything and not expect people to be late, or wait hours for a ride. It's too big. They'll have the same problems they've had every year with every company since."

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