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'White vans' meeting transportation needs

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

CAMILLA, Ga. -- If you travel an area highway, you'll no doubt encounter one of the blocky white vans with blue trim that announce Southwest Georgia -- or Dougherty County or Dawson or Lee County -- Regional Transit.

Few travelers, however, are aware of the role those vans play in providing mobility to a segment of the population that, for a variety of -- mostly medical --reasons, would otherwise be confined to their places of residence.

The vans are part of the federally funded Non-Emergency Transportation program, directed in the 40-county Southwest Georgia region by the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission. And the program, one of five in the state, is perhaps one of the best-kept $16 million-plus secrets in existance.

Twenty-three transportation providers with 438 full-time drivers and 50 or so more volunteer drivers on call are part of an extensive regional network that provides hundreds of thousands of "medically necessary" trips for Medicaid-eligible citizens and others without access to transportation.

The program is set up so that its services are available around the clock, and the transportation providers work under specific guidelines that make the NET program a lifeline for elderly passengers and others with mental health issues, addictive diseases and issues that fall under the care of the Department of Family and Children Services.

The more than 186,000 Medicaid-eligible citizens in Southwest Georgia who require medically related transport cannot be turned down for curb-to-curb trips upon request. Funding for the trips is provided by the Department of Community Health and the state Department of Transportation. However, the general public may also request NET services for a nominal cost.

MAKING IT WORK

Regional Commission Executive Director Dan Bollinger was the architect for the program, which recently was selected to receive the National Association of Development Organizations' Excellence in Regional Transportation award.

"The Department of Human Services originally came to us and asked us to take over administration of the Non-Emergency Transportation program," Bollinger, who's been with the Regional Commission for 16 years, said. "They were looking for a way to combine their part of the program (the health-related element) with the public element, which local governments just weren't able to adequately fund through taxes.

"We were able to combine the two and make the program work. I sat down with some of the Regional Commission members -- most significantly Glenda Battle -- and we thought through the process. We came up with a plan to make the program efficient."

The federal Department of Human Services started the NET program in 1996. Bollinger and the Regional Commission came on board in 2000, added the public portion of the program in 2003 and instituted the Medicaid element in 2007.

The Southwest Georgia Non-Emergency Transportation program now provides an average of 540,000 Medicaid trips a year in a 40-county region; and in the 14 counties and 44 cities served specifically by the SWGRC adds 31,500 public trips, 72,511 trips for the elderly, 186,212 mental health-related transports, 9,070 trips for persons with addictive diseases and 2,492 trips for riders with DEFACS issues.

Regional Commission Director of Transportation Programs Robert McDaniel, a native of the tiny Lester community and a former banker, is in charge of the day-to-day operation of the region's NET program.

"There are two people who work with us who are absolutely critical to the operation of this program," Bollinger said. "One is Robert McDaniel, who does a great job of managing things out of our program center. The other is Suzanne Angell, our finance director. Frankly, I think she's the only person in the state who truly understands the way the system works."

A PROJECT GUY

The way the system works is persons in the region with non-emergency transportation needs contact the NET's call center, located in Camilla, where one of 27 operators logs their request.

Contracted transportation carriers in the callers' specific location pick them up at their requested location, deliver the riders to their destination, then pick them up at an appointed time and take the riders back to their original destination.

Destiny Shuttle Service handles calls in Dougherty, Terrell, Lee, Worth and Colquitt counties, while Resource Management Systems and MIDS are in charge of other specific counties in Southwest Georgia.

Thomas County handles its own NET calls.

Destiny started working with the Regional Commission in 2003 and since has been averaging 180,000 trips a year in its five-county region. Its part of the program generates some $2 million in fees.

"Destiny originally provided charter and tour services, but as we developed a relationship with the city of Albany we realized that we were good at transit management," Destiny co-owner Orlando Rambo said of the company that employees 60 persons at its Albany and Moultrie offices. "After working with the city and the Regional Commission, our company evolved into one capable of providing rural transit management services.

"Without question, the NET program provides a great service to this region. We bring mobility to people who are not otherwise mobile. And when you look at the medical issues that most of our riders have, this program is truly a godsend."

McDaniel somehow takes all the disparate parts of the NET program -- funding coming from different federal agencies, monitoring of the more than 500 employees, making sure calls are answered 24 hours a day, compiling reports on each trip made -- and makes the operation run.

A self-described "project guy" who likes to get programs up and running before moving on to a new challenge, McDaniel prepared for the NET program with more than 30 years in the banking industry. He was serving on the SWGRC board of directors when Bollinger approached him about running the transportation program.

"Just the accounting process is incredible," McDaniel said of the NET operation. "Each trip has a different price, and there's another different scale for riders who are ambulatory, in wheelchairs or even on stretchers. You've got funding coming in from all over and going out in all these different directions.

"And there are reports required by each agency and the different regulations we have to follow. For instance, we have two city systems in our region -- Albany and Columbus -- and if we find that someone in either of those places lives within a half-mile of a city bus stop and is physically able to get to the bus stop, we can buy a bus pass and mail it to them. It's cheaper than a van trip."

ON CALL 24/7

As director, McDaniel -- as well as SWGRC Network Administrator Brad Hurst -- is essentially on call 24-7. And some of the calls can be daunting.

"Let's say someone in our region who is Medicaid-eligible is in Atlanta and is involved in an accident," McDaniel said. "Let's say it's a minor accident and that person is released from a hospital. If he calls at, say, 3 in the morning and says he needs a ride back to Dawson, we have to find a driver on call and pick that person up."

Meanwhile, the 27 operators in the call center are being monitored for quality assurance, and all program employees are under close scrutiny for any complaints registered by a rider.

"We average 150,000 phone calls (at the call center) in a year," McDaniel said. "In August this year, we had 14,288 calls and scheduled 71,935 trips. Of all those calls, there were 44 complaints. They ranged anywhere from late pick-up to the air conditioner on the bus not working to the driver talking too much or the driver not talking enough.

"The state dictates that we process every complaint and provide a report from the complainant. If the complaints aren't answered in a timely manner, there could be monetary penalties. And these aren't small fines. If there is a late pick-up or delivery for a dialysis appointment, the fine could be as much as $1,500."

And, as Hurst notes, there are no "off" days for the Non-Emergency Transportation program.

"The need never slows down; transportation never stops," he said. "So there's never a dull moment around here."

But is the program worth the cost to taxpayers?

"With any program like this, there is the potential for abuse," McDaniel said. "But I think the return on the investment makes it worth it. You have to realize that 60 to 70 percent of our participants are on dialysis.

Getting to those appointments can mean life and death.

"There are always going to be people who will try to find a way to beat the system. But when you realize the need, the people who most likely wouldn't be able to function without our service, you realize it's a worthwhile program."