By DANIELLE JAMES
Capital News Service
LANSING — A nonprofit transit program providing rides to non-emergency medical appointments for Medicaid recipients plans to continue its expansion despite the COVID-19 outbreak.
The program, called Rides to Wellness, is run by the Michigan Public Transit Association and includes everything from trips across town to out-of-state appointments.
The program offers free transportation to medical appointments for anyone receiving Medicaid assistance, according to Clark Harder, the executive director of the East Lansing-based association.
“The trips are paid for largely by the Superior Health Foundation with the funding they provided and our federal grant money,” Harder said. “The other funding source is those who have signed on with us as funding partners, because ultimately we want the hospitals that have signed on to help fund the program going forward.
“We hope to always be involved in funding, but in two years when our grant ends we want to make sure that we’re making the project sustainable with partners going forward,” he said.
Currently, Rides to Wellness uses existing public transit agencies and their buses, but it plans to expand into smaller vehicles, according to Harder.
“We’re using probably 10 vehicles actively right now,” he said.
The program is focused on the Upper Peninsula and partners with Manistique Schools, the Mackinac Straits Health System in St. Ignace and Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital in Manistique, among others.
According to Harder, the association plans to continue services.
“As long as the public transit agencies, which are the real backbone, continue to be deemed an essential service and are able to continue operating, I don’t see us shutting down the program,” Harder said.
However, he said, medical providers and clients have reduced the number of trips scheduled.
“Part of what we do see happening is a number of trips are being canceled, either because the medical provider is shutting down and not taking non-essential patients or the client doesn’t want to take the risk and go out right now,” Harder said.
“Frankly that’s helpful to us, because we want to continue serving the people who absolutely need services like cancer treatment and dialysis,” he said.
According to the Department of Transportation, local transit agencies implement safety precautions and service changes.
The department said it supports the decisions made by local agencies and has provided guidance issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and national transportation organizations.
According to Harder, Rides to Wellness takes precautions to keep vehicles safe.
“We require that drivers sanitize and disinfect between every transport,” Harder said. “We also try to do screening when people call to schedule a trip to ensure that they’re going for a legitimate medical reason other than COVID-19.
“These medical appointments are vital, and people still need to get to them, so we hope we won’t have to shut down what we’re doing,” he said.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a similar program in Genesee County has already been forced to shut down because of the virus.
The Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) in Flint created that program, also called Rides to Wellness, which provided the model for the U.P. program.
“Unfortunately, at this time, Rides to Wellness has been suspended due to COVID-19,” said Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for Health and Human Services. “Due to the ongoing threats of the coronavirus and in concern for the safety of our passengers and drivers, Rides to Wellness will remain closed until at least May 4.”
According to Wheaton, the program has plans to reinstate services with additional safety measures.
“During the program shutdown, all vehicles and buildings will be fully sanitized and disinfected,” Wheaton said.
“The MTA is hoping to reinstate services safely by requiring that all cars be retrofitted with a barrier between the driver and passengers, each driver will carry hand-held thermometer units to check passengers before they board the vehicles and passengers will be asked specific questions about any symptoms and or positive tests that have taken place,” he said.
Harder said the Public Transit Association program still hopes to continue with plans to expand in the U.P. where it serves half the counties.
“We’ll see where we’re at in a month from now, but my goal is still to be in the entire U.P. by the end of calendar 2020,” Harder said.
“I’ll be honest and tell you that it’s throwing a real monkey wrench into things for us this month,” he said. “This is such a new program, so it really requires us to sit and meet with people to walk them through our plan, but we had to put all those meetings on hold.
“We don’t have a large staff, so fulfilling our service role gives them less time to continue building the program,” he said.