Some of the Treasure Valley's most vulnerable citizens--Medicaid recipients due to disabilities, poverty or both--were almost left at the curb Feb. 19. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, a significant billing issue between American Medical Response and Boise City Taxi, the largest taxicab provider in the Boise area, had forced IDHW to ask other cab companies to transport Medicaid recipients to their health care appointments.
The taxi trouble overheated in the late evening hours of Feb. 18, when Boise City Taxi officials called state officials. Their message was abrupt but plain: Boise City Taxi would not be transporting dozens of people to their health care providers the next morning.
IDHW and AMR--one of the largest medical transport dispatch companies in the nation--had mere hours to scramble, finding rides for Medicaid recipients through other Treasure Valley taxi companies.
"American Medical Response arranges the trips, so they had to find other transportation for all these people," IDHW spokesman Tom Shanahan told BW. "We usually run 30-50 Medicaid recipients a day through Boise City Taxi."
Boise City Taxi, which currently has 32 active vehicle licenses in its fleet, entered into a formal agreement with AMR four years ago to transport Medicaid recipients to doctors' and counselors' appointments. The contract allows the traveler to pay nothing for transportation while cab drivers submit their fare costs to AMR. The company then reimburses Boise City Taxi at the end of each month.
But BW learned that because of a contract dispute, the bill from January's trips wasn't paid on time--and that not only left many Medicaid users in a lurch, but also their drivers. A number of Boise City Taxi drivers told BW that their employer hadn't reimbursed for their Medicaid trips for more than two weeks.
One Boise City Taxi driver, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her job, told BW that the cab company owed her as much as $2,300 for Medicaid transports. She said because of that, she "crosses her fingers" that her other customers will pay in cash.
"So, we're keeping our cash to pay our bills and rent and food," she said, referring to herself and other drivers. "We pay our car lease [$83 per day] and our gas. Before I even climb into my cab, I'm $120 into it, every day. And I'm not getting anything back."
Boise City Taxi co-owner Scott McCurdy insists that those problems are over.
"[The drivers' pay] is taken care of," McCurdy said, sounding agitated. "As of Tuesday [Feb. 18], they've been paid."
Another Boise City Taxi driver, David Welch, said he was recently fired for asking where his paycheck was. Welch said his problem stretched for nearly a month.
"All we've been functioning under for the past two weeks is what cash we put into our pockets," said Welch, adding that without his paycheck, he had no money for basic necessities such as electricity.
"I'm not one to sit down and say, 'Please, let me work for you for nothing,'" he continued. "We aren't getting paid as drivers. They're into me for about a thousand bucks right now. They're blaming it on American Medical Response. We couldn't get any information. We didn't know when we were going to get paid."
Billing issues between Boise City Taxi and AMR appear to be nothing new. IDHW spokesman Shanahan said the root of the trouble stemmed from a bookkeeping issue: American Medical Response would prefer if Boise City Taxi submitted invoices through a digital portal, rather than in hard copy. In the month of January alone, Boise City Taxi sent American Medical Response about 90 individual invoices.
An AMR spokesperson in the company's Denver, Colo., headquarters told BW that the problem was a "billing and paperwork issue," and that it would be resolved within the week, but according to Shanahan, Boise City Taxi is still suspending trips for Medicaid recipients "until the issue is resolved."
Boise City Taxi's refusal to take Medicaid-funded appointments is intended to get AMR's attention, but Welch--who drove a Boise City cab for three years--said the Medicaid calls amounted to about a third of his business. He told BW that he's "grown to care" about those individuals he takes to medical appointments on a regular basis.
"I truly do not know of a service-oriented program or job that is more intimidating than being a cab driver," Welch said. "I am literally carrying someone's life in my hands. And I get fired because I care, and I want to get paid. ... I'm lost on this one. I'm lost."
Meanwhile, Boise City co-owner McCurdy insists that he's "working diligently to solve the problem."
Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.