The Anne Arundel County Health Department has renewed a lucrative contract with a medical transport company despite complaints from sick people that they have been stranded at doctors' offices and from workers that they haven't been paid.
This week, several employees of the Alexandria, Va.-based Southeast Transit/Metro Access walked off their jobs when their paychecks bounced, leaving about 10 county patients without a ride to kidney dialysis treatments.
Some workers said this was the fourth time in a row they had been left hanging by Metro Access, which has signed a new $720,000 contract with the county that goes into effect July 1.
About a dozen lawsuits are pending in courts in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties alleging that Metro Access has failed to pay bills, promoted dangerous driving and has not followed safety guidelines for passengers.
The company, which gives rides to disabled and injured Medicaid and state aid recipients, lost a similar three-year pact with the state Department of Transportation in August after five months.
Bernadette Greene, assistant health commissioner for Baltimore, said the department had "huge problems" with the company, including drivers who didn't show up or got lost and were routinely late.
In a brief telephone interview, Metro Access President James McLary denied any wrongdoing, saying employees who criticize the company are "disgruntled" and "not team players." He said the bad checks were the result of a wire transfer that put the money in a wrong account.
'Private company business'
"This is private company business," McLary said. "Those employees have exceeded a code of ethics, and we are sorry that has happened."
On Wednesday, Metro Access managers delivered to the company's two dozen employees "confidentiality agreements." Employees who didn't sign, including several workers who talked to The Sun, were fired yesterday.
Doug Hart, county deputy health officer for operations, defended the company, saying that in two years of service to the county Metro Access has done a satisfactory job with only three complaints received since January.
McLary said 50 to 75 complaints have come in during the firm's two years of service, a number he felt showed that the company was "meeting all the demands of the county."
Employees say the firm has received hundreds of complaints, which they've been directed not to pass along to the county.
Court records also show a history of unpaid bills and charges of mismanaged service.
Metro Access has been sued about a dozen times over the past two years over unpaid bills for brake service, electric services and hydraulic lift repairs.
Patients file lawsuits
Lawsuits also have been filed by patients injured in van crashes last year while being taken to appointments in Baltimore. Two company drivers said this week they often feel they have to speed because their schedules are so overbooked they can't get patients to appointments on time.
McLary said he is not familiar with those lawsuits or they are left over from the company's work in Baltimore for the state Department of Transportation.
"There are complaints every day," said Phyllis Schmitz, who was fired yesterday from a job she had held in the office for two years after she wouldn't sign the confidentiality agreement. "We're told to cover them up. But when you have patients waiting four and five hours on oxygen downtown, yes, you're going to hear complaints."
Schmitz said a deputy sheriff comes to the company's Anne Arundel office on Veterans Highway so often to deliver eviction notices that she knows him by his first name.
Metro Access won a $636,000-a-year contract in 1996 after county officials said it submitted the lowest bid. It won out over Happy-Go-Lucky, which had held the contract since 1993 when the state privatized transport services.
The county contract says Metro Access has 30 minutes to pick patients up from appointments in the county and an hour to pick them up from appointments in Baltimore.
Heating, air conditioning and hydraulic lifts must be in working order, and the exterior and interior of transport vans should be clean.
"Some of us drivers used to use our own money to clean the vans because they were such a mess," said driver Donald Schneider, who has worked in medical transport for almost a decade. He was also fired yesterday.
"Some headlights are out," Schneider said. "The doors are bent. The bathroom in the office hasn't been cleaned for months People are left waiting for hours.
"I worked for [a Baltimore transport company], and I'm telling you this is a different ballgame all together. It's never been done right since day one."
Betsy Blade, a social worker for Bon Secours Hospital, said some dialysis clinic workers have driven patients home after the company failed to show up by closing time.
"Sometimes the patients are still sitting here at 6: 30 at night when they were supposed to picked up at 4: 30," she said. "It seems very erratic in the way they plan their routes."
Hart said the company received the contract increase because it is handling more patients.
"If people aren't getting to their medical appointments on time, that would be a major concern for us," Hart said. "We have performance standards and we expect those standards to be met. So far, this vendor has been performing satisfactorily."
One patient described a less-than-satisfactory performance.
Michael Hakulin, who is paraplegic and has been using the service since November, said he has been stuck on hydraulic lifts that broke down, once for an hour in the rain, watched drivers fall asleep at the wheel, and is rarely strapped in because the seat straps are broken.
"They treat us like dirt," Hakulin said.
Pub Date: 6/12/98