PA: BARTA Service Loss Would Hit Poor Hard

Feb. 29--Suspension of a program that transports welfare recipients to medical appointments would have a devastating impact on David A. Peters.

"It would be horrible for me," Peters said Tuesday in the day room of Opportunity House, a homeless shelter in Reading.

Peters, who is living at the shelter, used to get rides twice a week through the BARTA service to physical therapy. Now, he uses the service less often, but he still needs rides to doctors' offices for treatment of his diabetes and depression.

"It's a wonderful service," Peters said. "When I first got here I didn't even know the service existed. Now that I've used it, I don't know how I could do without it. It's my only method of transportation."

And, his doctors have indicated Peters has kidney trouble that eventually could require dialysis in addition to his other medical appointments.

On Monday, BARTA Executive Director Dennis D. Louwerse told the board that continuing to provide the service to about 6,000 welfare recipients would cost BARTA about $500,000 more than the state Department of Welfare allocated this fiscal year.

Louwerse said the department gave BARTA about $2.2 million to fund the program in fiscal year 2010-11, but it allocated only about $1.6 million for this fiscal year ending June 30.

As a result, BARTA must stop offering the service March 31 or be on the hook for the $500,000 to $600,000 needed to operate the medical transportation system through the end of June, he said. The service would resume when funding becomes available in the next fiscal year, he said.

For Peters, interrupting the service would be the same as simply denying Peters medical care, said Sherry Abraham, his caseworker.

"He can't walk to the bus stop and then once he gets on the bus, he would have to walk from the stop to his doctor's office," Abraham said. "In inclement weather he'd be a drowned puppy. He needs the door-to-door service the program provides."

The alternative, having caseworkers drive welfare recipients to their various medical appointments, is impractical, said Delia McClendon, vice president of shelter and supportive services at Opportunity House.

"We have taken people to doctor's appointments, but it's the exception rather than the rule," she said. "It's not economically feasible for us to be tying up caseworkers driving people around."

Of all the cuts Washington and Harrisburg have made to social programs in recent years, McClendon said, cutting funding for the BARTA medical shuttles is having the biggest consequences for Opportunity House.

Louwerse said he did try to compromise with the Welfare Department.

The department requires BARTA to transport welfare recipients to medical appointments both in Berks County and in other counties.

"That means we are required to tie up a shuttle bus to take one person to Philadelphia, or Harrisburg, or King of Prussia or Lancaster; it doesn't make sense," Louwerse said.

Louwerse said if the department allowed him to eliminate out-of-county trips, it would save enough funding to run the entire program in-county through June. The department denied the request, Louwerse said.

Abraham said she recalls getting a letter from BARTA announcing that the out-of-county trips might be eliminated, but two weeks later BARTA rescinded that.

"The problem with that is many specialists in Berks County don't accept medical assistance so the only way for them to get treatment is to travel to another county," Abraham said.

Louwerse stressed that BARTA isn't the only county transit agency feeling the pinch of Welfare Department cuts. The Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association said last week that at least 30 transit systems statewide are having trouble funding the program. Red Rose Transit Authority, which serves Lancaster County, announced earlier this month that it will suspend the service.

Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Ann Bale said the department is working with counties and transit agencies to resolve the issue.

Contact Dan Kelly: 610-371-5040 or dkelly@readingeagle.com.

Copyright 2012 - Reading Eagle, Pa.

Loading