ELIZABETHTOWN — Twenty-two Essex County residents have been left scrambling to adjust their transportation schedules after the Ticonderoga-based health consortium Inter-Lakes Health (ILH) cancelled the bus service that ferried elderly passengers from the southern part of the county to medical appointments across the region, including Middlebury and Burlington.
Essex County officials remain in the dark two weeks after the decision was made on July 28.
“It’s been hard to get information,” Essex County Transportation Coordinator Nancy Dougal told the Board of Supervisors on Monday, Aug. 11.
Dougal said one resident has already called the county requesting transport.
“I have 22 people that we need to decide how to move,” said Dougal. “Many are in wheelchairs.”
ILH spokesperson Jane Hooper said residents will still be served. Patrons of the former service were notified in a letter sent on Aug. 1 that the Essex County Bus and Ticonderoga Senior Bus would be available as replacements.
Dougal didn’t receive the letter. “The patients started calling and that’s how we got involved,” said Dougal.
The program, a joint effort between ILH and Hudson Headwaters, ran out of gas due to the prohibitive costs of repairing the bus, which was five-years-old and had 120,000 miles.
Hudson Headwaters got state grant funding for the vehicle, explained Hooper. While they owned it, ILH agreed to provide a driver, gas and insurance and ensure its operation.
ILH said they weren’t in a position to make repairs.
Hudson Headwaters rep Howard Nelson said on Monday they opted to discontinue the program entirely because they didn’t have grant funding to purchase a replacement.
This wasn’t the first bus in the program — repairs to a prior vehicle were made in the past — but nonetheless marks the elimination of the service.
Hooper said the termination was unrelated to the storms swirling around ILH this year, including mass layoffs and personnel changes that have called the facility’s long-term sustainability into doubt.
“The repairs that were needed were extensive,” said Hooper. “The potential repair was evaluated based on several factors, including the age of the bus and nature of repairs required, much like anyone would evaluate a potential repair bill.”
‘NOT VERY FORWARD’
The Essex County Bus can absorb some of those affected, but some outstanding questions are stuck in neutral.
The county-run bus cannot go beyond Essex County borders, eliminating medical destinations in places like Queensbury, Glens Falls and Vermont.
It is on fixed route that does not make door-to-door stops (but will go three-quarters of a mile off-route to pick up patrons).
“We try to do our best, but we really have to work within the parameters of the fixed route,” said Dougal. “We’re not going to drop them off at Wal-Mart, we’ll take them to Racetrack Road.”
Dougal pointed out other holes:
It will be difficult to get residents from New Russia to ECH, for instance, because service isn’t offered to New Russia.
The Essex County Office of the Aging has a list of volunteer drivers to help with clients aged 60 and older. But those are private vehicles which, like the Ticonderoga Senior Bus, are not wheelchair accessible.
“We’ll be picking up some additional transportation requests that hopefully won’t outspend our budget,” said Office of the Aging Director Patty Bashaw.
Bashaw said her office continually needs volunteers throughout the county to ensure folks get to medical appointments to keep them healthier and safer in the community.
These routine appointments keep people healthy and limit unnecessary ER visits that drive up costs, said Bashaw. Volunteer drivers will receive gas mileage reimbursement and insurance benefits. Interested parties are encouraged to call 873-3695 to get involved.
Dougal said she is in touch with town supervisors throughout the county to ascertain the needs for their constituents.
Ticonderoga Supervisor Bill Grinnell said ILH shouldn’t be faulted and the important thing is to focus on a solution:
“Town, county, state, federal — we’re going to find an answer,” he said.
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava asked if the county could enter into a contractual relationship with Hudson Headwaters to keep the service running.
Dougal said she was unsure of how the contract has historically worked.
“ILH is not very forthcoming,” she said.
“It would make sense to have a dialogue with Hudson Headwaters,” said Human Services Committee Chairman David Blades. “We need to find out what’s going on.”
“We’re trying to stay ahead of it,” said Dougal.