Champaign County ends medical gas card program

Program had become a burden to administer.

URBANA — A county program that provides gas cards to eligible residents to attend medical appointments will end next week because of difficulties administering the program and because of concerns of misuse of the cards.

The Champaign County Department of Job and Family Services on Sunday will eliminate the use of gas cards to administer its Non-Emergency Transportation program.

Thousands of federal Medicaid dollars flow through the program each month.

That includes nearly $30,000 the first three months of this year.

Some residents said the program eased the cost of helping themselves or loved ones attend medical appointments.

But county officials said the program has become burdensome for staff, and the cards, once distributed, were impossible to monitor. There was also evidence of misuse in some cases.

As the number of residents using the cards mounted, up to five staff members spent several hours a day evaluating eligibility, getting approval from supervisors and distributing the cards, said Susan Bailey-Evans, director of the Champaign County DJFS.

“It’s multiple staff for multiple hours every day,” she said.

The cards are provided to eligible residents in increments from $5 to $20 as a reimbursement for mileage to and from medical visits. Residents could receive $5 cards for medical visits within their city or village of residence and $10 cards for trips within Champaign County. For visits to neighboring counties, residents could receive $15 cards. Visits to other counties, often for trips to specialists, were eligible for $20 cards.

The gas cards were available only for Medicaid-eligible residents and could only be used for Medicaid-reimbursable services.

Eligible residents now will be responsible for contacting and arranging transportation through their Medicaid provider. Residents in Champaign County can also use resources such as the Champaign Transit System and Quality Care Transport.

Bailey-Evans said residents will still be able to use those services to receive transportation for free to their appointments. However, it will also mean they will have to plan ahead and schedule appointments efficiently.

From January to March alone this year, the agency distributed about $28,000 worth of the gas cards to 556 consumers, according to DJFS information. That figure is typical for the county each quarter.

“The volume has grown over the past several years, and it became unmanageable,” Bailey-Evans said.

Still, some residents who used the program said it helped ease their financial burden as they struggle to juggle numerous medical appointments.

Linda Marshall of West Liberty visited the DJFS on Thursday, days before the program shut down. Her son Dustin, 31, is mentally disabled and is dealing with a range of other medical issues that require the family to visit several physicians and specialists each month.

“It was a huge help, and it’s going to be a devastating blow because we rely on them,” Marshall said. “It just eased our burden a bit.”

She said she feels for younger families who have more medical issues ahead, but said her family will make do without the cards.

“We’ll just dig deep,” she said. “We’ll get him where he needs to go. I’ll make sure we get him to his appointments, just as we did before.”

Most residents used the program correctly, Bailey-Evans said. But county staff were also concerned about the program being abused in some cases.

While evaluating the program, staff members heard from some residents who appear to have been using the gas cards to supplement their income. Instead of scheduling multiple visits in the same day, some residents appear to have been intentionally setting numerous appointments throughout the month to obtain additional cards.

Doing so is not illegal, and staff members evaluate each case to make sure the medical visits are valid. But the county is responsible for watching tax dollars, and that is not the proper use of the program, Bailey-Evans said.

“They were using it to supplement their income,” she said.

She mentioned other instances that, while rare, showed signs of abuse of the program. In one case, a handful of residents scheduled valid medical appointments in Columbus. County officials later discovered that instead of making the visits individually, the residents were carpooling.

Finally, there was concern about a regulation requiring that any gift cards purchased with federal money be tracked, and all money on the cards spent.

The gas cards likely fall under those rules, Bailey said. Any money remaining must be returned to its original funding source. But once distributed, the county has no way of knowing how much money on the gas cards was used.

“There’s no way I can put a monitoring tool in place to make sure there aren’t a few pennies left on those gas cards,” Bailey said.

Statewide, total expenditures for the program came to more than $43 million, said Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Because the program is administered through each of Ohio’s 88 counties, the state does not have a total count of the number of residents using it.

“Because NET is county-based, there are 88 different ways it is administered,” Johnson said. “At the state, Ohio Medicaid provides counties support and technical assistance. Each county describes its approach to NET in its community transportation plan and tailors its plan to meet local needs and conditions.”

Bailey-Evans, who is also in charge of Logan County’s DJFS, said that county also used a gas card program. It will be shut down as well.

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