Pasco County gets money from a lot of sources to pay for a popular transit service that drives elderly and disabled residents from their homes to medical appointments or grocery stores.
Back in June, commissioners figured they'd actually save money if they got rid of one of those funding sources: a state program that pays the county to ferry Medicaid-eligible clients to their doctors.
The reason provided by county staff: The state never paid the full costs for the service, which then forced scheduling delays — and drained about $100,000 this year — from the rest of the paratransit program.
But this week commissioners learned their decision had an unintended consequence: Pasco County Public Transportation would actually lose nearly half a million dollars for other programs for the elderly and disabled.
On Tuesday, commissioners quietly reversed their June vote, opting to continue running the Medicaid Non-Emergency Transportation program.
Because the service is an entitlement program, the county can't turn away clients who meet certain requirements, including that they have no other transportation and that they are going to medical appointments that Medicaid is helping pay for.
So Pasco officials provided the rides even though the state funds didn't cover the full cost, and they have been drawing on other pots of money to make up the difference.
In the end that has meant less money to cover rides for other paratransit riders, including elderly citizens who are not on Medicaid.
Many of those riders have been unable to get rides close to the day of their doctors' appointments, instead having to re-schedule appointments at least two weeks out.
County staff, who had recommended dropping out of the Medicaid non-emergency program to commissioners, say they did not realize that doing so would cause Pasco to lose its designation as a "community transportation coordinator," which allows Pasco to qualify for other funding sources for its transit programs.
Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson said no one from the Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged, which is part of the state transportation department, told Pasco officials about a new policy adopted last August. In short, that policy says: Drop the Medicaid program, lose the designation and the other funding it brings.
"Had we known they'd adopted a new policy we wouldn't have gone forward," said Johnson. "They failed to tell us they'd changed their internal policy."
County officials had presented commissioners with a list of 10 other counties that opted out of the Medicaid non-emergency program without losing their designation. But what they didn't know until later: Those other areas dropped out before the new policy went into place.
Bobby Jernigan, executive director of the commission, did not return a phone call Wednesday.
But he told state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, in a letter last month that the commission felt that the agencies with the designation of coordinator should not pick and choose which programs it wanted.
Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher had enlisted Fasano's help after learning that the county may lose the designation after its June 8 vote.
"Hopefully we won't run a deficit," said Johnson. "We would like to have the state adequately fund the Medicaid Nonemergency Transportation program and they're not. It's an entitlement program and they're leaving the burden on us."
Now, he said, it's back to business as usual unless Pasco can find a private group, such as a taxi company, that wants to manage and provide the service.
"It's a matter of delaying trips, rescheduling trips or funding them out of other sources that were originally meant for other clientele," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.