man talking to car driver

“We’ve been looking at ways to innovate in the nonemergency medical transportation space for a couple years,”

Uber to meetings, Uber to parties, Uber to work. Sure. 

But Uber to the doctor’s office?

Not only is it a thing, but for some people in Arizona, Medicaid will pick up the tab.

The state is just over six months in to a first-in-the-nation program allowing some Medicaid patients use a ride-sharing service, like Uber or Lyft, to get to nonemergency medical appointments when other options are not available.

Officials with the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which oversees the state’s Medicaid program, said they will not have results on the initiative until next spring, but so far they’re still enthusiastic about ride-sharing for medical care.

“We’ve been looking at ways to innovate in the nonemergency medical transportation space for a couple years,” said Heidi Capriotti, an AHCCCS spokeswoman. “When we were approached by some of the ride-share companies and they shared their models with us, it seemed like a good fit for Medicaid.”

Since Arizona launched the ride-sharing program earlier this year, it has spread to five more states: Georgia, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri.

AHCCCS in May announced a policy change adding ride-share companies to those that could register with the state as nonemergency medical transportation providers for Medicaid recipients.

It’s not as simple as just calling for a ride. Patients still have to follow the procedures when asking for any other type of medical transport: They call their health care provider who determines if a ride-share is the best fit, and then the provider arranges the pickup.

The service is only available to people who don’t have their own transportation, can’t pay for a ride and can’t arrange a free pickup through a friend or community organization.

Currently, Lyft and Uber are the two registered special providers in Arizona. Both companies work with health care centers nationwide to streamline the process for patients.

While the state has not released numbers, Uber spokeswoman Stephanie Sedlak said in an email currently “15% of all Arizona Medicaid trips are done via ride-share.”

Capriotti said one of the restrictions on the ride-share service is it must be a nonemergency call and patients using the service must not require personal assistance. 

Darren Hsu is marketing manager for a competing service called GoGoGrandparent allows users to call a number and talk to an operator to arrange a ride. It operates “in every place where the ride-share apps are available,” he said, and has the added benefit of an operator who can help locate a passenger in large areas like a shopping mall or hospital, where a ride-share driver might have trouble because of a lack of a location pin.

Hsu wonders how the ride-sharing program might work in rural areas or areas without access to broadband. He also wondered if some patients might not know how to use a ride-sharing service.

But others, like Brad Hargens, Mercy Care Arizona vice president of health plan operations, are sold on the program. Mercy Care Arizona added the ride-share program to the other transportation services it was already offering, and the extra option for patients is helpful, Hargens said.

With 1.8 million Medicaid recipients in the state and the usual number of tourists flocking here for spring break and spring training, Hargens said the real challenge might be finding enough cars to keep up with the demand for ride-sharing come March and April.

“We get a lot more individuals here,” he said of that time of year. “It’s just trying to find enough cars to meet everyone’s needs. That’s the difficult part.”

So far, AHCCCS has not received direct feedback from Medicaid recipients on the service, Capriotti said. But officials believe the ride-share program will “add flexibility to the health care delivery system and increase transportation options for Medicaid members.”

AHCCCS Director Jami Snyder said the state was “proud to be the first Medicaid program in the country” to offer ride-sharing services for beneficiaries who need transportation to nonemergency medical appointments.

“This is a significant step forward in medical transportation services and we look forward to seeing its positive impact,” she said.