“If a [customer] says, ‘I need a hot air balloon,’ we’re going to deny that!”

So said David Coppock, regional director of the San Diego–based transit company Veyo, as he stared down a state panel on medical assistance at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford last Wednesday, in an event recorded by the Connecticut Network. Veyo is responsible for all of Connecticut’s Medicaid nonemergency medical transportation. By hot air balloon, Coppock was referring to requests for alternative transportation, such as vans that can accommodate disabled patients or children with immunodeficiency.

The right to medical transportation is federally guaranteed as part of the Medicaid package. Veyo was awarded a three-year contract with the state, amounting to almost $160 million, effective this January. The company works with multiple transportation companies and individual drivers to deliver 800,000 Connecticut residents to appointments for dialysis, chemotherapy and mental health treatment.

But the company has been plagued by complaints from customers on one key issue: tardiness.

“Patient experience was terrible and continues to be terrible,” said Bonnie Roswig, staff attorney for the Center of Children’s Advocacy, which is representing Medicaid recipients who have had difficulties dealing with Veyo.

Roswig said that people have sat on the curb for hours waiting for their cars and have missed or arrived late to critical appointments. Others have been stranded at health facilities after being discharged, waiting for a return ride that never came. The repeated complaints about no-shows and lateness have led the Department of Social Services to fine Veyo $13,500.

The human impact of such a problem is vast. Patients enrolled in long-term programs such as opioid treatment or mental health group counseling have missed their sessions or not received the full amount of attention they require due to time constraints. According to Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, patients who fail to show up or arrive late for opioid treatment appointments can be deemed in “non-compliance with treatment,” which can lead to the discontinuation of services.

When confronted about these issues at the meeting, Coppock assured the panel that the problems were resolved after multiple training sessions to educate call center staff and cab company personnel. He presented data that showed improvement across areas such as average cab tardiness, which has dropped to 2.8 minutes. He also said calls are now answered after an average of 42.6 seconds. A phone call from the News to the customer hotline late last week took 13 minutes to be answered.

Veyo did not respond to requests for comment on Friday morning and Wednesday afternoon.

In addition, wheelchair service was not guaranteed to Medicaid patients until July, seven months into the contract, when the Department of Social Services issued a final warning to the company. Veyo has since begun to offer wheelchair-accessible transportation consistently.

Still, conflict over which patient requests the company should honor has persisted. The number of denials has skyrocketed. In January, the company denied 1,241 trips because it could not provide patients’ requested modes of transportation, according to Veyo. In July, that number quadrupled to 4,379.

One of the 4,379 is a client of Roswig’s who requires wheelchair-accessible vehicles to take her to her appointments because of muscular dystrophy. Veyo has denied her access to wheelchair-accessible vehicles because she lives within three-quarters of a mile of a bus station, Roswig said.

According to data provided by Veyo, less than half of 774 people denied access to particular modes of transportation were notified of the denial.

Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said this practice violates the right to due process, guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

“They’re not sending the notices because they know it’s illegal,” Toubman said. “You can’t deny service for these reasons.”

Instead Veyo has been pointing fingers at the Department of Social Services and the cab companies and drivers to which Veyo contracts. This has been a trend in the seven other states in which Veyo operates. In Idaho, the company terminated its $70 million contract early amid customer complaints that resemble those in Connecticut. In Colorado, tensions have flared between Veyo and its cab providers.

Jason Brabson, a Colorado paratransit driver and former Veyo employee, said the company does a poor job training drivers to work with patients who have specific medical needs. He described a culture that pitted drivers against each other for fares, with little emphasis on the patients.

“Veyo blames its predecessor, hospitals, cab companies, basically everybody but themselves,” Brabson said. “You’re in charge of the companies that you hire, so if you hire substandard companies and then blame them for poor service, in my opinion that’s pretty lame.”

The contract Veyo has with Connecticut includes a payment model in which the state gives Veyo a lump sum and the authority to distribute fees to cab companies based on their performance. Roswig called this model an invitation for market failure. To reduce payments, Veyo hired cheaper companies that often lack the capability to service wheelchair customers, leading to a vicious cycle that reduces available transportation methods for these patients.

At the state panel on Wednesday, Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, expressed frustration with Coppack, the Veyo director.

“With all due respect, … these are everyday lives and people are trying to get from one place to another,” Abercrombie said. “And I don’t appreciate you comparing it to something like a hot air balloon.”

Nicole Ahn | sebin.ahn@yale.edu