A pair of large buses picked up by Waldo Community Action Partners this summer have been a formidable presence around the county, sporting lots of chrome and all the luster of new vehicles, which they are.

WCAP’s transportation program was seemingly in jeopardy earlier this year, and while the situation has changed for the better, the buses aren’t strictly evidence of this. An explanation of both things follows.

Last spring the agency was bracing for a major change to the reimbursement system for non-emergency rides covered by Medicaid, including doctor’s visits and transportation for school-age children.

New federal regulations mandated that the administrative side of Medicaid-funded transportation be separate from the rides themselves to avoid potential conflicts of interest. To come into compliance, the state proposed hiring a single broker to dispatch and bill for all Medicaid reimbursed rides, statewide.

Agencies like WCAP have historically done both parts, and according to former WCAP executive director Joyce Scott the administration piece offset costs on the transportation side.

When the brokerage idea was unveiled, representatives from WCAP and similar agencies around the state worried that it would not only add a layer of bureaucracy to a system they said has been working well for 30 years, but that it could take the legs out from under the existing transportation networks.

In the intervening months, the request for proposals aimed at brokers was delayed and then revised in a way that bodes much better for the local Full Service Regional Transportation Providers, as agencies like WCAP are known.

In a July 18 letter to interested parties, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the department had decided to go with a regional, rather than a statewide brokerage system.

According to Michelle Probert of the state’s Office of MaineCare Services, the regional model would allow the existing CAP agencies to effectively be their own brokers. The new system would be risk-based, Probert said, meaning transportation providers would be paid per person, per ride, so there would be no incentive for providers to game the system.

Whether this was ever a problem is unclear.

Officials from DHHS have said the state would lose around $6 million in Medicaid funding if the current system stays in place, and the switch to a risk-based system has been billed, in DHHS literature, as necessary to keep full funding with some potential improvements to service, rather than as a measure to prevent fraud.

Asked if there had been problems with the existing system of full-service regional transportation providers, Probert said there have been some reports by users and advocacy groups of riders being stranded and not being able to get rides for “urgent care” (non-emergency) appointments on weekends or evenings, and that these varied from one region to another.

She made no mention, however, of self-referring rides or other conflict-of-interest abuses that the new federal rules presume to address.

Probert said the state would issue a request for proposals for potential brokers by the end of November. The new system is slated to take effect next spring.

WCAP Transportation Director Ed Murphy said he is waiting to see the request for proposals before he comments on whether the change would work for WCAP. Based on preliminary discussions, he said, WCAP could be required to buy performance bonds and new telephone systems, among other things, to qualify as a broker.

“I’m a little leery,” he said. “I’m going to need to really look at it hard because it’s an at-risk type of deal where you could lose your shirt too if there isn’t money enough with the added expenses to do what we would have to do.”

The new WCAP buses, as it turns out, have nothing to do with the impending shift to a brokerage system.

Murphy said the agency got the buses through a federal grant. The “twins,” as they are described on the WCAP website, are 2011 International regular bus chassis with El Dorado bodies. Each carries 22 passengers.

WCAP retired three buses of similar capacity which had reached the end of their serviceable lives. Unlike the new vehicles, which Murphy described as “real buses,” the old ones were “cutaways,” or fiberglass bus bodies attached to a truck chassis.

“Pretty cheesy,” he said.

Murphy said the new buses are larger, have similar seating capacity and get comparable gas mileage. The combination of new buses and getting rid of old ones still leaves WCAP with one fewer of the large buses. It wasn’t a question of a trade in — the old ones just couldn’t be kept on the road any more, he said

“It’s a statewide issue. It’s not just here in Waldo [County],” he said. “Everybody’s running equipment beyond their useful life because there isn’t funding out there, and in rural Maine, public transportation cannot pay for itself. We’re very lucky here, we have the support of all the towns and the county, and it makes a great difference.”

In the meantime, Murphy said he is making do and waiting for more funding opportunities to come up.

“You know what would be really neat is to get a trolley for in-town Belfast. That would be something really neat,” he said. “There’s been some talk that people in town would like to see that happen, but I don’t know.”