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OFF THE RAILS MetroAccess Problems

Service for Disabled Is Troubled

Marquette Henderson said his frequently late MetroAccess ride forced him to leave his job last year. He sometimes chose to walk home from work along the highway rather than wait.
Marquette Henderson said his frequently late MetroAccess ride forced him to leave his job last year. He sometimes chose to walk home from work along the highway rather than wait. (By Michael Robinson-Chavez - The Washington Post)

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By Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Third of four articles

As Marquette Henderson's vision dimmed and he could no longer drive, he sought help. He signed up for training through Blind Industries and Services of Maryland and found a job as a clerk at its store on Bolling Air Force Base. To get there and back to his Fort Washington apartment, he relied on MetroAccess, the transportation service for the disabled that Metro is required to provide under federal law.

What at first seemed like a blessing ended up adding to his difficulties. The transportation was so unreliable that one day in January 2004, Henderson didn't get to work until 12:30 p.m. for his 8 a.m. shift, he said. Sometimes, he said, he would call his wife to pick him up as he set out for home on foot, straining to see as he tapped his cane along the dusty edges of the highway.

He stopped getting bonuses. His boss put him on notice because he was frequently tardy. Last summer, he was forced to quit, he said.

"I have three teenage kids and a wife, and I'm a blind person going out there and trying to be responsible in this life, and I need some help," said Henderson, 46. "But the help I have is costing me my job."

While Henderson was navigating the breakdown lane of Indian Head Highway, Metro was paying LogistiCare, the company that has run MetroAccess since 2000, hefty performance bonuses.

For years, Metro told Henderson and other customers that their complaints of late or missing drivers were exceptions, citing LogistiCare statistics that the vast majority of rides for its 14,000 users were on time.

But LogistiCare's contract with Metro contained a loophole: When drivers failed to show up, the trips weren't recorded as late and didn't count against the company when performance bonuses were awarded. Although Metro could have regularly spot-checked LogistiCare's numbers, agency officials said they failed to do so.

And even as Metro managers were publicly wringing their hands about the escalating costs of the program, they failed to take recommended steps to control them. At the same time, LogistiCare and others were warning the agency that it was losing money to fraud by dishonest drivers and customers, according to records and interviews.

Now, problems have culminated in legal action on two fronts.

Henderson and other customers have sued Metro, claiming that MetroAccess is so unreliable, it violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. And a Metro investigation into possible fraud in the program has led to a Montgomery County grand jury probe, according to court records and Metro officials.

Officials at LogistiCare, an Atlanta-based company that manages transportation for disabled Medicaid recipients across the country, said they have and will continue to cooperate with any investigation. They said they are proud of the service they provide to the region's disabled residents.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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