Pasco County paratransit service short on money

HOLIDAY — A few weeks ago, the Schwartzes had to get to a doctor's appointment. This was no easy task.

Neither drives — Vera is 81, Seymour 89 — and neither is healthy. They don't have many friends who can drive them places, and they don't have any family.

So the Schwartzes called Pasco County's paratransit service, which picks up elderly and disabled clients at their homes and takes them to medical appointments or the grocery store.

The couple used to have to schedule their trips only three days in advance. But on this day, they were told they had been added to a waiting list — one that was at least two weeks out and with no guarantee.

So fearing they'd have to cancel their medical appointment, they went ahead and hired a taxi at a roundtrip cost of $34 — no small amount for a couple living off Social Security.

"You call up two weeks in advance, and they're taken already?" said Vera. "I didn't have any trouble before."

The Schwartzes aren't the only ones.

Pasco transit officials say they don't have the money to keep up with the demand for the service, meaning they are pushing out what used to be a three-day wait to three weeks or more.

"We are having to schedule out further and further and it is a difficult situation," said Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson.

Currently, the county is running a $150,000 deficit on the portion of the paratransit system that serves Medicaid patients, said Johnson.

The state sends about $68,800 a month to cover roughly 1,729 paratransit trips and 267 fixed-route bus passes for Medicaid residents, he said.

But as more Medicaid residents have needed the service, the state funds have not increased. So the county has done a sort of financial juggling act, drawing on some of the other federal and state grants to help make up the difference.

In the end, that means less money to cover rides for all of the paratransit riders, including those like the Schwartzes, who do not have Medicaid.

Johnson and transit manager Mike Carroll said continuing to run a huge deficit is unsustainable.

"We're just under discussion about what our options are," said Carroll. "And that's not been determined at this point."

Could that mean sharply reducing, or eliminating, paratransit services altogether? Both Johnson and Carroll said that is an option.

Back in 2007, Pasco cut back on the paratransit service but restored many of those cuts after an outcry from people denied rides to doctors' appointments.

The county has been trying to get more paratransit riders on the less expensive fixed-route buses, and has helped fund programs that train the disabled to learn how to ride the regular buses.

But for the frailest riders, those who can't walk to the bus stop or stand and wait in the sun, the paratransit service makes a huge difference, said Jason Martino, program administrator at the Pasco-Pinellas Area Agency on Aging.

"We do have a clientele who can't make it on the fixed route," said Martino, who said he had fielded a handful of complaints about the new delays.

Commission Chairwoman Pat Mulieri, who serves on the board that oversees transportation services for the disadvantaged, said she had not heard any complaints. But she said she knew how much some people depend on it.

"It's such a needed service," she said.

But some of those who need that service are not getting it.

Anna Brice, 87, who lives in Beacon Square, said she called ahead about two weeks before a medical appointment. She was told she was on the waiting list and that someone would call her.

But two days before her appointment, no one had called her. Afraid that she'd owe the doctor's office a cancellation fee, she said forget it. She found a friend from church to take her.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County paratransit service short on money 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 2:46pm]

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