Patients say a non-profit that works with the Washington Healthcare Authority to provide rides to and from medical appointments in King and Snohomish Counties has not been delivering on its promises, leaving them stranded at their appointments.
Sonja Montalvo started using Hopelink after a stroke and amputation required her to move from her home to a nursing facility. She could not receive kidney dialysis there as she had at home, and so she started depending on Hopelink to broker rides with different transportation companies. The Washington Healthcare Authority pays the transportation companies that Hopelink has booked with your tax dollars: Medicaid.
Montalvo recounted waiting many times, including one time when she said she was reduced to tears as she waited for her return ride and the painkillers she could only receive back at the nursing facility.
"I was just sitting there, waiting, waiting, waiting," Montalvo said. "Nobody came."
At one point, she started telling her daughter, Cuca Pasillas, that she didn't want to go to dialysis anymore because the waiting made her so weak and put her in so much pain.
"I don't want my mom to have to choose whether or not she's going to live or die based off a transportation company," Pasillas said.
In one case, Pasillas told KIRO 7, she was informed by the dialysis clinic that her mother had been waiting for an hour.
Pasillas, who was out of town and unable to reach her mother, called Hopelink.
"They're like, 'We cancelled the ride.' Well, who was going to tell me? Who was going to tell her, who was going to tell anybody you cancelled her ride?" she said.
Mariana Harris also reached out to KIRO 7 while still working at Hopelink in customer service because she said she was so frustrated by the scheduling practices. She said others were also being left at clinics.
"It started to be on the regular," she said. "A couple of times a day … it kind of breaks my heart, you know, to leave these clients stranded."
Harris, who later quit and took a job elsewhere, said Hopelink would sometimes book rides for patients to an appointment without having a return ride lined up.
"We'll work on getting them a ride back home while they're at their appointment," she said. "We're not informing them that we don't have one yet, but we're working on it."
KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon took her concerns to Hopelink's Director of Communications, Todd Langton.
"She says that was happening regularly," Sheldon said, referencing Harris's statements.
"As far as I've been informed, that's not supposed to happen," Langton said.
Langton said it doesn't happen the way Harris describes. He said drivers sometimes cancel, are delayed by traffic or accidents, or simply don't show up for that return ride.
Numbers show of the approximately 1.6 million trips a year that Hopelink completed in 2018, about 7 percent -- approximately 112,000 trips -- were not on time.
"Why is that?" Sheldon asked.
"There are several reasons for that," Langton said. "Primarily, the reason is that there are not enough NEMT drivers."
NEMT stands for non-emergency medical transportation.
Drivers have to get state-required training and Uber and Lyft drivers don't qualify.
But Langton said they're making changes.
In the last six months, he said, they've created a role for a person focused solely on scheduling and hired a recruiter for new transportation companies. They've added 55 more drivers and ended a relationship with a transportation partner whose drivers were late or no shows. They're also spending more than a million dollars on software allowing drivers to text patients.
"There is the ability to communicate to the client and tell them, ‘Yes, I'm really close,'" Langton said.
It's a feature that he expects to launch in June 2020.
As for Sonja's experience?
"Is it policy for Hopelink to cancel rides while patients are waiting at the clinic to be picked up?" Sheldon said.
"Absolutely not," Langton said. "It's not okay and that person -- if she did not get a call letting her know what happened to her ride -- then that's a failure on our part … we're sorry."
These days, Cuca Pasillas gets her mother to appointments with a wheelchair van, paid for with a big chunk of her retirement savings.
"It's just made such a difference having the van," Pasillas said tearfully. She said she can't trust Hopelink to be there.
"People aren't being taken care of," she said. "People's mothers, people's fathers."
Once it gets approval from the state Healthcare Authority, Hopelink will also launch a specialized pilot program. It would allow doctor's clinics to call other transportation if a driver from Hopelink suddenly isn't available. Those drivers would not have to meet the state's required training.
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