Private and Public Policy Reviews for the Disabled

Miles Wise, Hours Foolish

Or Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

By Stephen Rex Goode, BSW

I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom, “Penny wise, pound foolish.” It refers to decisions made by people who scrutinize the smallest expenditures of money while ignoring the waste of great amounts of money. A decision is penny wise and pound foolish when it wastes more money that it saves.

In Oregon, some services for developmentally disabled adults are managed through state-approved brokerages that handle a certain amount of case-management activities and broker contracts between clients and providers of services. These service providers are sometimes offered reimbursement for miles driven at somewhere near the federal allowable mileage deduction. Miles claimed for reimbursement must be used with the client in the vehicle and while providing services that match a contract for hourly services provided. Among other things provided by the brokerage are bus passes for the local transit system, Trimet.

There are other things provided by the brokerage in terms of products and services, but these three are the focus of this review.

  1. Mileage reimbursement to providers at a rate around $.45 per mile.
  2. Hourly reimbursement to providers at a maximum rate of $23.72 per hour.
  3. A bus pass for clients that currently costs $26 dollars for those who can qualify with Trimet as Honored Citizens.

I am such a provider. My clients/customers annually are reviewed for their services in meetings at the brokerage that I usually attend. In recent meetings, personal agents representing the brokerage, have expressed a sentiment that is now becoming policy. The sentiment is expressed in the following question:

Why should we pay for mileage when we already provide the customer with a bus pass?

On the surface, it seems like a fair question. However, like so many other “fair questions”, if one thinks it through, a lot of inconsistencies come to light.

Consider the following scenario:

A customer whom we’ll call Arnie lives near Clackamas Town Center in a suburb just southeast of Portland proper. He has an appointment in downtown Portland for which he needs support from his provider, whom we’ll call Ralph. Using Trimet’s Green Line light rail train, it takes an average of about 42 minutes to go from Clackamas Town Center to downtown Portland, according to Trimet’s online trip planner. According to Mapquest, it takes approximately 20 minutes by car to drive the 14 miles, using the fastest route.

Now do the math:

For a round trip, taking a car saves 40 minutes (20 x 2) over taking the light rail. 40 minutes at the rate of $23.72 per hour comes to $15.81, a time-based savings over the more time-consuming choice of taking mass transit. The round trip of 28 miles (14 x 2) at the rate of $.45 per mile is $12.60, reducing the savings to $3.21 for that one trip.

On any given work day for me, I am likely to make an average of three such trips with a client. With most clients, I usually work once per week, or about twelve trips per month. So, for one month, using my car for transportation, I would save my customer’s budget about $38.52 per month, $12.52 more than the cost of a $26 Trimet Honored Citizen’s pass for the month.

The numbers in this example are not typical of a trip in Portland. There are few to/from combinations that don’t require a transfer of some kind. Rather than a one-way trip taking 42 minutes by mass transit, it is likely to take more than an hour, but often about the same amount of driving time in a vehicle.

Here is another more realistic example:

Arnie has an appointment at his doctor’s office near Good Samaritan Hospital. It is 140 minutes round trip by mass transit including time waiting to transfer from light rail to bus. Ralph can drive the 32.3 miles and back in 48 minutes for a savings of 92 minutes times the hourly rate of $23.72 for a savings of $36.37. Ralph will be reimbursed $16.37 for the trip, saving Arnie’s budget $20. That’s just $6 shy of the cost of the Honored Citizen pass.

The realism doesn’t stop there. Ralph can drive from door to door. He can pick Arnie up at his home and deliver him right to the doctor’s office. On the other hand, if they use Trimet, once they arrive in Northwest Portland, there is still the task of walking from where the bus drops them off to the office.

To be fair, sometimes taking the bus does represent a savings. To see this calculated for all sorts of scenarios, use my easy calculator.

There are also differences that can’t entirely be measured in time and miles. For that 92 minutes saved in the last scenario, Ralph could be providing skills training services that can’t be performed while riding a bus or train.

While I am in my vehicle with a client, we can talk about anything related to his situation and the work we do together. There’s no one around to hear it. That ever important confidentiality is maintained. Not so for the entire 140 minutes spent on a bus or train. I can’t do much more than carry on casual conversations with my client. To do more than that would potentially reveal protected information about my client to anyone within earshot.

Now, if the concern in all of this is the environment, the dependence in this country on foreign oil, or any other arguments that extol the virtues of mass transit, the choice would be clear. Take the bus. However, the question that started all of this was, “Why should we pay for mileage when we already provide the customer with a bus pass?” The question, as posed, doesn’t really have anything to do with saving the planet, does it?

Sometimes, I am contracted with a client to help him learn how to navigate around on the mass transit system. At times when I am teaching that skill, going by bus is an easy decision. As long as we’re not going to places he already knows how to reach by bus, it seems taking the bus is the right thing to do. If, however, I am supporting him in an activity where he knows how to get there on the bus, I’m wasting valuable time getting there by bus that could be used to work on other skills.

The implementation of the new policies based on this ridiculous question will require me to justify why I drove somewhere instead of taking the buses. To me, it’s upside-down. Given the above facts, I should be required to justify why I wasted valuable skills-training time by taking the buses.

I am only with clients about once a week, sometimes less. For the rest of their 20+ days that don’t include me, they are getting around with their bus passes. The bus pass provides them with freedom, accessibility, and independence when I am not there to support them. That is the right answer to, “Why should we pay for mileage when we already provide the customer with a bus pass?”

None of the personal agents who are repeating this asinine question are able to identify just exactly who first asked it. It is always a mysterious “someone” who is coming up with this stuff. I tend to think that we only get “someone” as a reference because Someone doesn’t want to answer for it.

The scary thing about even writing this review for me is that the same Someone will probably also get the idea that because you can’t do real skills training while riding a bus, workers like me shouldn’t be able to bill for time on a bus. You probably read this and laugh, it’s so ridiculous, but I’ve seen that kind of thing over and over in this system.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I always envision a bunch of administrative types sitting around in a conference room because they don’t want to be at their desks working. They are asking questions like the one that prompted this review and no one “in the trenches” like me is there to explain the realities to them.

Be the first to like.

Leave a Reply

If your comment is a support question, please post it at the forums.