Advocates for the homeless in Portland, Maine, marched through the city today to plead for better access to public transportation.
The annual event, organized by Homeless Voices for Justice, was created six years ago to highlight a particular challenge that impacts the city’s 3,000 homeless residents. Marching alongside a cutout of a cardboard bus, the group made its way to Monument Square to make a plea under the city’s Christmas tree.
"What do we want? Bus passes! When do we want them? Now!" shouted the protesters in unison.
MaineCare recipients used to have access to unlimited monthly bus passes to get to and from medical appointments, but when a new transportation broker called "Logisticare" took over in August, those bus passes went away. It became more complicated for Bud Buzzell, who suffers from PTSD, hearing and vision impairment, to get where he needs to go.
"I have 24 appointments every month," he explained.
Now that he has to justify and document the need for every bus ride, Buzzell says he can’t always get to the care he needs.
"I had to cancel two appointments today, one for PT, and one for speech therapy," he said.
Case workers with The Opportunity Alliance say making public transportation more complicated has made their clients much more dependent.
"We think clients lose the ability to gain independence and recover because they don’t have that flexibility of the pass to get to the appointments that sustain their life," said Peter Townsend.
The need for more accountability comes, in part, from the Department of Health and Human Services desire to crack down on fraud. DHHS says the federal government does not allow reimbursement for any non-medical appointments, so the department wanted to prevent bus passes from being used to go to other destinations. But those who work with MaineCare recipients say instead of saving money, the switch may end up costing the state more.
"Probably what for them is a savings in eliminating those bus passes, they’re now seeing higher costs in us having to step in and deliver more services on clients behalf," said Townsend.
A monthly Metro pass costs $45.