Local legislators seek moratorium on med rides program consolidation

  • An FRTA bus arrives at the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/11/2021 1:50:30 PM
Modified: 5/11/2021 1:53:02 PM

GREENFIELD — The governor is looking to consolidate a program of the local transit authority that provides low-income people and those with disabilities with a ride to medical appointments that would mean oversight by an agency about 100 miles away. But the area’s legislators are trying to put a moratorium on any such decision and signing of contracts for the next two years.

Gov. Charlie Baker wants to sign a contract that would consolidate the Human Service Transportation system from six regions run by six regional transit authorities, including the Franklin Regional Transit Authority (FRTA), to three regions that would be managed by two transit authorities. The one that would manage Franklin County would be located in the Fitchburg/Leominster area.

The contracts would provide transportation services for MassHealth members and those receiving other state services. Those changes will happen on July 1, unless legislators are able to stop the signing of the contracts.

A letter asking for the moratorium was signed by 77 House and Senate lawmakers, including the local legislative delegation — senators Jo Comerford and Adam Hinds and representatives Natalie Blais, Paul Mark and Susannah Whipps.

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services oversees the Human Service Transportation system.

In a group comment, the local delegation wrote, “We request that the implementation of this change in service brokers be suspended and services remain as is because it is in the best interest of our constituents, the current service brokers and the commonwealth.”

FRTA Administrator Tina Cote could not be reached for comment.

“Regional transit authorities reached out to us,” Hinds said. “Every step of this process has been frustrating and our concerns have not be addressed, so we keep elevating our concerns.”

Hinds said he’d like to see a moratorium on the entire process, until transit authorities have had more time to present their cases.

“This proposal defies common sense,” he said. “(Franklin County) already has transportation challenges. This would make them even more complicated and difficult.”

Hinds said the result the governor is looking for is not applicable to the region.

“It makes sense in some parts of the state, but not here,” he said. “Our area still has limited broadband and people are going to be required to use this service by using their cellphones, an app and the website. How can they rely on those when they don’t have broadband living in certain areas of Franklin County?”

Hinds said so far the response from the state has “not been favorable” in addressing concerns, so legislators will keep fighting.

Blais said language calling for a moratorium has been included in the House’s budget. She said if the same type of language is not included in the Senate budget, both budgets will go to a joint committee to reconcile the two. She hopes, in the end, language is included in both.

“The moratorium proposed had broad support in the House,” she said. “If it goes through, the moratorium would go from July 1 through June 30, 2023.”

Blais said if the moratorium is put in place, there is more language in the House budget that would ensure that any necessary improvements and reforms would move ahead, no matter what the plan is for two years down the road.

“We want to make sure residents are provided the best services possible by our regional transit authority and those across the state,” she said.

Blais said legislators would also like to see a state task force study regional transportation in the most rural areas — a health and human services working group that would look at how to improve service and save money, exploring and identifying needs, without putting a burden on or affecting county residents who use medical ride services.

“That was supposed to happen, but it never did,” she said. “The administration went forward and proposed a statewide change.”

Blais agreed with Hinds, saying a centralized service 100 miles away is not good for the people of Franklin County and other western counties.

“This would have a significant impact on our constituents, especially,” she said. “It would have a huge impact on their ability to access these consolidated services. We have to do what’s best for people locally and they are best served by local providers like the local regional transit authority.

“This administration prefers to move successful, locally supported models to larger centralized systems,” Blais continued, “and that just doesn’t work for rural communities.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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