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Veyo launches specialized fleet for COVID-19 patients; some want to know what took so long

Four months into the pandemic, the state’s nonemergency medical transportation broker launched a specialized fleet of vehicles to shuttle COVID-19-positive patients — and those suspected of carrying the virus — to medical appointments across Connecticut.

Although the company, California-based Veyo, is hailing the measure as a way of preventing the spread of the disease among some of the state’s most vulnerable people, lawmakers and health officials are questioning why it took Veyo until July to figure out how to provide transportation for those Medicaid patients. Some also are suggesting the company owes the state money for services it failed to provide from March to July.

Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, a Meriden Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Human Services Committee, said she wants to review month-by-month data on Veyo’s rides to determine whether the company should refund some of Connecticut’s money. The company has a $160 million, three-year contract with the state.

“Veyo was not prepared to take on the pandemic,” Abercrombie said. “I want data on what their volume looked like through COVID because I believe we need to get reimbursed from Veyo for them not fulfilling their contract.”

Prior to the start of the specialized fleet, “they did not give their employees hazard pay; they did not put up shields,” she said. “You’ve got this contract that says this is your job and you’re not doing it. So why shouldn’t you give the state some of that money back?”

Veyo officials said that before the fleet was up and running, COVID-19-positive and symptomatic patients were referred to nonemergency ambulance services, whose staff already had the necessary protective gear and other precautions in place. The company continued its rides as usual for asymptomatic patients.

“Of course, people still have to get to their appointments, whether or not they have symptoms,” Veyo President Josh Komenda said in an interview. “If they were exhibiting symptoms or had a positive result or other risk factors, we would refer them to an appropriate service, which could be a nonemergent ambulance or other transportation service.”

Ambulance corps in Connecticut stepped up to meet the demand. At least one ambulance network arranged to transport patients in need of dialysis treatment who were COVID-19-positive or symptomatic.

David Lowell, chief operating officer of Hunter’s Ambulance in Meriden, said dialysis centers reached out to him asking if his company would give those patients rides. For the last several months, Hunter’s Ambulance has coordinated with four other ambulance groups in the state to drive dialysis patients to and from their appointments. The dialysis centers have special hours for COVID-19 patients, and the ambulances were outfitted with safeguards.

Lowell estimated that among the five companies in his network, the drivers completed “hundreds, if not thousands” of trips for those dialysis patients since the pandemic began.

“Early on in the COVID outbreak it became apparent that Veyo was tragically unprepared for the transport of certain patients,” he said. “Because of the high risk of transmission among COVID patients, the dialysis centers asked if we would take patients who were either under suspicion or had in fact tested positive, in a nonemergency mode.”

Lowell has requested a higher payment rate from the state to cover costs associated with the rides during the pandemic, including decontamination measures, equipment and supplies. He said earlier requests for increases in mileage reimbursement and per-incident transport were turned down.

Many of the dialysis patients in need of transport to appointments come from nursing homes across Connecticut, which have been hard hit by COVID-19.

Officials with Connecticut’s Department of Social Services said they are reviewing Lowell’s request for a change in payment rate.

Veyo’s overall rides dropped amid the COVID-19 crisis. Numbers submitted by the company to the state show it completed 430,357 rides in January. In April, that number fell to 300,350 rides. In May, Veyo completed 287,657 trips, and in June, it completed 303,875 rides.

Komenda said demand plunged as people stayed away from doctors’ offices, fearful they would catch the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. He did not have an estimate for how many patients Veyo was unable to serve earlier in the pandemic because the patients were COVID-19 positive or suspected to have the disease. “I don’t believe it was a significant number,” he said.

With the company’s rides plummeting, the state’s social services agency has rerouted Veyo’s cars for other purposes. For example, the vehicles have been used to deliver meals to homebound seniors and to drop off protective gear, such as masks and gloves, to Medicaid patients who employ personal care assistants.

Veyo still is referring wheelchair-bound patients with COVID-19 or with symptoms to the ambulance services. The company’s specialized fleet only accommodates patients who are mobile.

As for refunding money to the state, Komenda said Veyo’s contract is designed so that if there is a surplus, it is returned. “The contractor can never profit more than 5%,” he said. “There are quarterly reports and then there’s a year-end reconciliation.”

Komenda said he did not know how much money Veyo might have to return.

Veyo’s contract with the state ends in December. Despite a troubled run — the company has incurred thousands of complaints from stranded patients and the state was hit with a class-action lawsuit over Veyo’s performance — officials with the state Department of Social Services said they are planning to extend Veyo’s contract for one year.

“We are finding that the pandemic is changing the actual conditions around medical transportation,” said David Dearborn, a spokesman for the department. “It has affected consumer demand for rides ... As a result, we believe this new landscape warrants careful examination of how the nonemergency medical transportation system may be restructured.”

“The pandemic has also affected the capacity of DSS staff to prepare for the procurement process, which is complex even in a ‘normal’ year,” he added. “There are less than five months left before contract expiration.”

Veyo’s new fleet of cars — nine in total — are outfitted with plastic dividers and vinyl seating and sanitized between rides. Head-to-toe protective gear is supplied to the drivers. Trips in these vehicles are offered to patients who are mobile — able to enter and exit cars without assistance — to minimize contact.

The state is picking up the tab for the safety upgrades and deep cleaning of the cars. DSS officials declined to reveal the cost to taxpayers, saying they were “pending receipt” of final expenses.

 “All of our employees at Veyo want to do their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Komenda said. “The health and safety of our drivers and our members was our top priority, which is why we’ve implemented strict requirements for our drivers and their vehicles.”

Jenna Carlesso is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2020 © The Connecticut Mirror.

jcarlesso@ctmirror.org

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