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UPDATE: Calls for changes, state fraud investigation of medical van contractor

by: Eric Rasmussen, Erin Smith Updated:

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UPDATE: Jan. 5: The Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services and MassHealth has referred the case of a private medical transportation contractor to the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Division, FOX25 Investigates has learned.

The development comes a day after a FOX25 investigation revealed safety hazards on a van operated by Health Line Transport, Inc. The state contractor has received more than $350,000 in taxpayer money since 2013 for transporting patients to and from medical appointments.

In an e-mailed statement, an HHS spokesperson wrote:

“The integrity of the MassHealth program is a top priority for the Baker-Polito Administration. MassHealth is reviewing this provider’s claims to identify fraud and abuse and to ensure quality of the programs that MassHealth members rely on and has made a referral to the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Division.”

Safety concerns shared by former Health Line drivers and patients with FOX25 also caught the attention of State Senator Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester.

“When we see safety belts that aren't operative, when we see doors that open while a vehicle is motion, that gives rise to deep concern,” said Tarr who also says he’s reaching out to MassHealth administrators.

“My questions will be are there other things we can do? Are there regulations that need to be authorized? Are there laws that need to be changed?” asked Tarr. “I think that this one case will provide a lot of information about what we can do to reform the system because we need to understand how this got that far.”

Meanwhile, two more former drivers for Health Line have come forward, reporting safety concerns with the company’s vans.

Former driver, Gus Teo, told FOX25 Investigates he experienced problems while driving an unmarked black minivan for Health Line during his first day on the job.

“The brake rotors, I actually noticed, like, clicking. I called (the owner) and I let him know and then… two hours later, the van broke down before I even got to pick up my first patient,” said Teo.

FOX25 Investigates found Health Line owner, Richard Peisch, outside Arbour-HRI Hospital in Brookline where one of the company’s vans was picking up more patients on Thursday.

Peisch said his drivers never told him about some problems with his vans and he insisted there was no threat to passengers’ safety.

“I really don’t know what the anger is,” said Peisch. “We take service very seriously and I guess that’s all I can say.”

Peisch showed FOX25 Investigates the same van first seen with safety problems. While a seatbelt and a damaged spare tire appeared to be fixed, a side view mirror on the van was still cracked and broken.

Despite Peisch’s assurances about safety, Arbour-HRI Hospital told FOX25 it plans to cut ties with Health Line Transport, Inc.

In a statement e-mailed to FOX25,  a spokeswoman wrote:

“Arbour-HRI Hospital became aware of specific issues with the transportation company from patient feedback and have raised these issues with Health Line’s leadership. While they have acknowledged our concerns, we have not been fully satisfied with the response and are in the process of exploring new service options to fulfill our day program patients’ transportation needs.”

ORIGINAL STORY: FOX25 Investigates went undercover to show how a state contractor hauling in hundreds of thousands in tax dollars transports patients in medical vans with major safety issues.

The contractor, Health Line Transport, Inc., also appears to be breaking state rules by hiring Uber drivers to for some rides for patients on state-subsidized health insurance.

Former medical van drivers first tipped off Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen about safety problems with the company’s vans which get people to and from their medical appointments.

Over a two-week investigation, FOX25 observed a Health Line Transport van with major safety defects, including a shattered mirror, body damage and a missing seat belt.

The spare tire was damaged beyond use.

“It's got nothing but holes all in it!,” said former Health Line driver Felicia Alvarez who alerted FOX25 to the problem. “It's not safe!”

Alvarez said she was told to bring in the van for repairs, but less than two days later, FOX25 Investigates recorded the same van – in the same condition and back on the road – with a different driver picking up more patients.

Patients speak out

FOX25 spoke with four patients who have ridden in Health Line vans. FOX25 Investigates is not identifying the patients to protect their medical privacy and because they say they fear retribution for speaking out.

One woman told FOX25 Investigates her first ride in a Health Line Transport van was terrifying.

“The first curve we went around, the van door – like the big side door – flew wide open,” she told FOX25.

Other patients said no repairs have been made to the vans.

“He doesn't get them fixed,” another patient told FOX25. “He doesn't care. It's all money to him.”

Company has contract with the state

Richard Peisch owns Health Line Transport, Inc. – the company which holds state contracts under the name Universal Sequence, Inc.

According to state records, Peisch has billed taxpayers more than $350,000 since 2013 to transport people receiving state-subsidized health insurance through MassHealth.

After repeated requests for a sit-down interview, FOX25 Investigates caught up with Peisch outside his office in Newton.

“Well, listen, I really don’t have anything to say,” Peisch told FOX25 when asked why he isn’t taking better care of his vans.

When told about the safety issues FOX25 Investigates found on his medical transport vans, Peisch said the vehicles were safe.

“They're perfectly safe. What are you doing to me?,” said Peisch. “They're perfectly safe vans.”

Some rides subcontracted out to Uber

FOX25 Investigates also observed patients who were supposed to be using Health Line Transport vans getting into private vehicles outside their clinic.

Three MassHealth patients told FOX25 the cars were Uber rides arranged by Peisch.

But MassHealth officials said Peisch is not allowed to use Uber to transport patients, according to his agreement with the state and his contract can be suspended if his company is found to “endanger the health, safety, or welfare of MassHealth members,” documents obtained by FOX25 Investigates show.

In an email to FOX25, Peisch denied ever using Uber for MassHealth patients – saying he only used the ride share service for passengers on private insurance.

In those “private pay” cases, Peisch wrote, “our clients do not care how we get their passengers to their destination.”

Peisch also told FOX25 Investigates his vehicles “undergo stringent service reviews” every week – despite what FOX25 cameras recorded and what patients said they’ve witnessed.

“One single passenger complaint to their booking agent about (Health Line Transport) vehicle safety would cause us the loss of the contract and that has never happened,” said Peisch in an email to FOX25. “A service issue is typically reported to us by a driver and it is addressed immediately.”

The patients interviewed by FOX25 said they have complained about the vans on multiple occasions.

One patients said, “It’s an abuse of actually everybody – the patients, the clients, the drivers, the taxpayers.”

Patients told FOX25 Investigates they didn’t choose Health Line for their transportation and the service was assigned to them by their healthcare provider – based on their insurance.

FOX25 contacted one of those providers for comment and have yet to receive a response.

MassHealth officials told FOX25 Investigates the agency has been conducting his own review of Health Line since April and has denied the majority of payments to the company during that time.

“Universal Sequence was independently identified by MassHealth for practices that are not accepted by MassHealth,” said the agency in a statement to FOX25. “MassHealth has continually strengthened its program integrity while seeking to ensure our members have access to medically necessary services.”