She said it is one of the ways she maintains her independence.
While she is a member of the state’s Citizen’s Advisory Council for the local and state Transcend program, she struggles with her own disability and knows firsthand the problems seniors and disabled people face, especially getting around.
While a majority of those served come from Bayonne and Jersey City, the program serves people throughout Hudson County, transporting patients to local medical facilities as well as hospitals in Essex County, and one day a week to medical facilities below 70th Street in Manhattan. These vans will even take residents to Hackensack Medical Center in Bergen County, and Lyons Veterans Hospital in East Orange. The program has a fleet of 50 vans and 40 drivers, and operates 12 months a year.
Yet the program is losing funding, partly because of declining revenues from Atlantic City casinos, from which a significant part of the program’s funding is derived.
“I feel very strongly that the cutbacks make it seem like disabled people are not important,” Valls said.
This service isn’t just for medical needs.
“We also take disabled people to their work sites, and some county workers who are entitled,” Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise said. “We also by the terms of the grant we receive take people to recreation and shopping.”
The program, DeGise said, currently provides approximately 115,000 free trips a year.
Now more than 20 years old, the program was designed as a way to help seniors age in place in their homes in order to maintain greater independence and help provide an alternative to nursing homes.
The demand for the services has greatly increased especially over the last year, from about 97,000 in 2008 to 111,000 last year. It is estimated that Transcend will provide approximately 115,000 trips in 2013.
Because residents are assured of a safe, reliable way to get to doctors and other medical services, they are more willing to schedule proactive, preventive medical checkups, reducing their need for acute services later, DeGise said.
While most counties across the state administer Transcend programs, as an urban county, Hudson County residents rely on it more. Residents here often used public transportation prior to becoming too frail or disabled to continue.
“Just a few years ago, we were marked by the state for having the outstanding Transcend program in the entire state,” DeGise said. “This is something we’ve chosen to expand while other counties let them shrink. This is something we consider to be one of the prime services we provide to the citizens of Hudson County.”
The program filled in for Bayonne Medical Center, Hoboken University Medical Center, and Christ Hospital when those facilities were forced to cut back on transportation services for some of their patients a few years ago.
Funding cut threatens program
While the Hudson County Freeholders have complied with DeGise’s request to apply to NJ Transit for the annual grant, this will not provide enough to sustain the program.
“The problem is that this grant is rapidly shrinking,” DeGise said. “Paid for through revenues from the state’s casinos, it is now only half of what it was four years ago.”
The program costs about $3 million a year to run, and in 2014, the county will be short $712,398.
DeGise said his administration has begun to aggressively investigate alternative funding sources to help close the gap without increasing demand on local taxpayers.
“While counties across New Jersey have been cutting back dramatically—as much as 50 percent on their Transcend trips—we in Hudson County expanded, taking over Bayonne senior medical transportation clients and those of Christ Hospital in Jersey City,” DeGise said. “We’re enduring the continued cuts in state funding by becoming more efficient, using computers to improve and automate appointment scheduling, and by rolling over funds where possible to maintain services.
“But with this 2014 budget cycle, it’s clear new revenue must be found to avoid deep service reductions.”
The funding is likely to get worse in future years, partly due to the negative impact that Hurricane Sandy had on casino business last year.
“We’re looking at troubled times,” DeGise said. “We’re looking for solutions as early as possible.”
DeGise said the county will seek additional revenues by offering sponsorship to local banks and major corporations in Hudson County which could adopt individual routes or a mini-bus.
“We’ve had preliminary discussions with providers of services like dialysis centers who market themselves to Hudson residents in part by touting how visiting them is easy and cost-free, thanks to Transcend Senior and Disabled Mobility Transportation,” DeGise said. “We hope we can find a way to allow them to help us keep service through some kind of support.
“They are very sympathetic to our plight and they also understand that many of their clients will have a very hard time getting there, and they have indicated that they would like to be part of the solution.”
DeGise said if funding can’t be found, the program could continue but would likely see a cutback in services, something he would like to avoid.
Other counties such as Essex and Ocean have taken steps in this. Essex County, DeGise said, privatized this service, which is no longer run by the county, resulting in about a 40-percent cut in the number of trips they provide.
“Ocean County did the same,” DeGise said. “Some other counties have started to charge fares for the residents.”
This is something Valls disagreed with, saying that many can’t afford to pay the fares. Hudson County’s seniors, DeGise noted, are among the poorest in the state.
“One of our options is to freeze right now the number of people we service,” DeGise said. “That would mean that new dialysis patients would not be eligible for our program. That is something that is not acceptable to us at this point.”
The county will also seek to solicit advertising for the mini-buses, while at the same time cutting costs wherever possible, such as cutting service on holidays, cutting vacant positions, and reducing the small number of weekend services that use part-time or overtime staff.
DeGise said he would reach out to mayors and state legislators to support more state funding for the services because even to get funding to maintain current services will require state action.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.