Patients are receiving free rides to the hospital, thanks to the Wheels to Wellness program organized by local volunteer groups.
The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, The Arc Southern Maryland and the Center for Life Enrichment are working together to transport disabled or low-income patients to MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown and CalvertHealth in Prince Frederick.
Yolanda Hipski, the regional transit coordinator for the tri-county council and John Hartline, the executive director, said transportation is needed in rural areas such as Southern Maryland.
“There’s no way things like Uber and Lyft are going to take people in wheelchairs,” Hartline said.
“And that’s another thing,” Hipski added. “People in Southern Maryland, those options like Uber and Lyft are not there. People who don’t have family members to transport them, they have no option.”
The program started in August 2018 and made about 200 trips a month. They originally planned to make about 40 rides a month, but the program escalated.
Despite the high demand, Hipski said they are forced to keep the program limited so it won’t “explode and collapse on its own success.”
The tri-county council and The Arc donated $160,000 to pay for the milage, staffing, vehicle expenses and other costs. But they hope to get more money and resources to expand into Charles County. They are continuing to receive money from the Rural Maryland Council and are looking into to other sources to fund the transportation.
The drivers are volunteers who usually drive for the arc and the center for life enrichment, according to Hipski. They are also trained in specialized care.
“That basically means they carry people that can’t transport themselves,” Hartline said. “Some are in wheelchairs, some have disabilities, there’s just various reasons why they need to be transported.”
Potential wheels to wellness passengers are identified by the hospital’s case managers. They then request the ride’s time and location through a centralized scheduling website. The Arc Southern Maryland answers the request and assigns it to one of the drivers.
“We are working on looking at some more sophisticated software,” Hartline said about the scheduling website.
The patients are mostly transported in minivans or small busses, which Hartline thinks are all equipped with lifts for those in wheelchairs.
Most of the trips happen between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., since the vehicles are being used early in the morning and later in the day. Hartline credits the drivers for making this work because of their availability and years of experience.
The executive director said one of the problems they faced in the past are the no-show rates caused by patients who missed their rides. But Hartline said they’re working to get that rate as low as possible. About 16 to 20% of patients in rural areas around the country miss their appointments, according to Hartline, “And our program is running less than three percent.”
A 2017 report from the community transportation association of America read that a lack of transportation is one of the leading barriers to accessing healthcare and it affects over 3.6 million people in the country.
In Southern Maryland, the barrier resulted in a lack of “preventive care resulting in a strong prevalence of chronic disease, as well as an overuse of ambulances and emergency departments,” the report read.
It said that emergency department visits for chronic diseases in St. Mary’s County are above the state average. However, visits for mental health conditions increased by almost 50% between 2010 and 2014. It also read that all three counties are experiencing aging populations.
Some areas, like Calvert County are experiencing “growth rates in their population over the age of 65 that are significantly higher than the state average,” the report read. Charles County also has an aging population, with 10.6% of the population are 65 and older.