BOSTON (CBS) -- The state is strapped with a $2 billion budget deficit, yet it's spending millions of dollars on chauffer driven rides to methadone clinics.
An I-Team investigation found that day in and day out, chauffeur driven livery cars make the trek to local methadone clinics with recovering heroin addicts and other drug users on board.
Most of the passengers are members of MassHealth, the state medical plan once known as Medicaid, and it is an expensive trip when there's only one person in the passenger seat. Expensive for the taxpayers, that is, who are paying the fares.
"The word has got out now that MassHealth is pretty much a free taxi service," said one professional driver who asked the I-Team to hide his identity.
"Why would you want to use your own gas and your own car when you can just call MassHealth and get a luxury ride to Boston in a Lincoln Town Car?" said the driver, who used to work for a livery service that contracts with the state.
"I found myself doing taxi work, basically picking up people and shuttling them down to Canal Street in a luxury vehicle," the driver said. "I've done as many as five or six trips in a week and I'm just one person."
Making the daily trips to methadone clinics is a huge cost to MassHealth, a program that is the single biggest account in the state budget.
In the last two years, more than $71 million were spent driving MassHealth members to medical appointments.
And the I-Team has learned that last year, in four regions of Massachusetts, the state spent an estimated $1.4 million just on rides to and from methadone clinics.
Methadone clinics aren't always easily accessible to patients or to public transportation, but critics say one patient in each chauffer-driven car goes too far.
"Clearly chauffer driven transportation is not a requirement in order for somebody on MassHealth to go to a methadone clinic," says Michael Widmer, head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
Widmer said the $10 billion MassHealth budget accounts for one third of the state budget and is growing rapidly. "This is a perfect example where there has to be some savings," he said.
"This is the way the system is. It just wastes money because it can," said Barbara Anderson, who heads Citizens for Limited Taxation. "I remember when they used to send welfare mothers to the welfare office to get their welfare checks in a cab, and this is the same sort of thing."
Terry Dougherty, the state director of Medicaid, said the state is required by federal rules to provide transportation services to MassHealth members.
To meet that requirement, the state contracts with regional transportation authorities, which then hire private livery companies to drive MassHealth members.
"I can see where people may think of it as a taxi service," Dougherty said. "The fact of it is that since 1986 under federal law we must provide everybody their transportation to medically necessary treatments. If we can do a better job, we'll look into that and get even more efficiencies."
To get the free rides, Mass health members need a letter form their doctor saying it is a medical necessity.
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