North Austin resident Geoffrey Adair suffers from chronic fatigue, asthma and sinus issues that require him to make trips to doctors at least once a week.
Because of his illness, the 59-year-old, who lives with his elderly mother, is unable to drive or take the bus and depends on her to drive him to appointments.
“It’s a real, real hassle,” Adair said. “If I could get a door-to-door, affordable service, it would take a lot of pressure off her, and that would be a huge help.”
A pilot program poised to launch in August could provide patients like Adair who receive full-coverage medical assistance through Central Health’s Medical Access Program with an easier way to get treatment through the use of a ride-hailing app.
Community Care Collaborative, a Seton Healthcare Family-Central Health nonprofit that provides health care, RideAustin and the Dell Medical School recently announced they are teaming up to help about 50 low-income and uninsured Travis County patients use the ride-hailing service to get to medical appointments and pharmacies.
“We often hear that transportation creates a barrier to accessing health and health care-related services,” said Sarah Cook, strategy and planning director for the collaborative. “We wanted to use existing community assets that align with our philosophy to help our patients access the care they need and improve the health of our community.”
The program will be funded by a $50,000 grant from the Transit Empowerment Fund, which is supported by Capital Metro Transportation Authority and other community donors and managed by the Austin Community Foundation.
Capital Metro already subsidizes free and reduced price bus passes for qualifying low-income residents, and some Community Care Collaborative clinics have access to taxi vouchers. This year, more than 53,000 bus passes will be distributed through local organizations, officials said.
But officials say this pilot program will help them determine whether ride-hailing programs can help fill gaps in the local public transportation system and reduce no-show rates for appointments.
Bobbi Kommineni, vice president of programs at RideAustin, said the nonprofit ride-hailing service is looking forward to bringing patients a more convenient method of transportation.
“As a nonprofit, this is very much in line with what we want to do,” Kommineni said. “We want to make transportation more accessible for everyone in Travis County and in the Austin area.”
So far, the Design Institute for Health, a collaboration between Dell Medical School and the University of Texas College of Fine Arts, has finished preliminary research by interviewing patients, including Adair, about their needs, technological literacy and usage of data plans and apps.
The institute will help with the selection of patients, who must have incomes at 150 percent of federal poverty level or below, and their on-boarding and training for an initial prototype.
After receiving training, some patients will be able to access the RideAustin app on their personal smartphones and call for a ride on-demand just like any other user.
For others who might not have access to a smartphone or data plan, the institute is working with RideAustin to develop an interface that would allow patients’ case managers to schedule appointments.
Cook said the pilot program will initially target patients with the greatest need for transportation assistance.
“We don’t yet know what a fully funded program may look like, but this gives us the ability to test this idea (and) understand how our patients interact with ride-share programs so that we can scale the pilot as appropriate,” she said.
Even when Adair was healthy enough to be able to walk to and from the bus station, the trips would take him two to three hours because of the walking and multiple transfers.
He’s also tried ride-hailing apps in the past, but with him and his mother living on a fixed income, they can’t afford to use them. So when Adair heard about the pilot program, he said he was thrilled.
“So many people don’t understand; they don’t even know what we go through just trying to make doctors appointments and to get to them,” he said. “(The pilot program) would certainly help.”
Correction: This article has been updated to fully explain the source of funding for the pilot program.