by Max Brantley
Citing concerns about management oversite of transportation services, the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education (DCCEDE) has placed the license of the Ascent Child Health Services facility in West Memphis on a probationary provisional status for 12 months, agency officials said. It remains open but will be subject to increased monitoring of all aspects of its programs, which provide clinical services and therapy to children with developmental needs.Ascent is big business, funded almost entirely with government dollars through Medicaid and also USDA nutrition programs.
In addition, DHS is prohibiting Ascent Acquisition Corporation, which owns the West Memphis center and 10 other facilities, from providing any transportation services in Arkansas, including childcare and Medicaid-related transportation, as of June 30. Ascent Acquisition Corporation management notified DHS Tuesday that it will voluntarily end transportation services at all 11 of its sites across the state.
“Given that it can take several days to complete the hiring and background check process for new drivers and attendants, we are allowing a brief transition period to end Ascent transportation,” said DHS Deputy Director for Health and Medicaid Director Dawn Stehle. “In the meantime, we will have DHS staff on site in West Memphis for enhanced monitoring to ensure children are safe.”
At five of its own centers – those located in West Memphis, Blytheville, Jonesboro, Paragould, and Trumann – Ascent was a subcontractor of Southeastrans, a provider of non-emergency transportation services funded by Medicaid. Southeastrans is now working on a transition plan to ensure there are no gaps in services for children and families at those facilities and will resume administration of transportation services in those areas by June 30. Parents of children at those facilities can contact Southeastrans with questions at 866-539-0714. Parents who have children at the other Ascent centers should contact their center director for more information about transportation. For Medicaid-eligible children, parents can call 1-888-987-1200 (option 1) to find out about other transportation options.
Licensing and Medicaid contract monitoring investigations began last week when a 5-year-old child died after being left unattended on a van for approximately eight hours, according to authorities. Initial investigations indicate processes and state regulations designed to prevent children from being left on vehicles were not followed that day. [Four people have been charged with manslaughter in the death, including the van driver, a van rider and two supervisors.)
In the days that followed, DHS and contract monitoring staff conducted unannounced reviews at all 11 Ascent centers to inspect transportation vans and assess drivers’ knowledge of state regulations and procedures in place to keep children safe. Management closed the West Memphis center the day after the child’s death, and closed June 14-16 due to a shigella outbreak at the facility.
Employees from DHS and Southeastrans are present at the West Memphis center each day this week monitoring transportation routines and protocols for signing children into their classrooms.
“We are on site to ensure children are safe, and we will continue to be there as long as necessary,” said DCCECE Director Tonya Williams. “We’ve also stepped up monitoring visits and inspections of all summer programs in Arkansas that provide transportation.”
Though Southeastrans has terminated its subcontract with Ascent effective June 30, DHS is placing Southeastrans under a corrective action plan that requires the company to re-inspect all subcontractors’ vans by July 14, increases the amount of subcontractor monitoring the company is required to do, requires retraining of all drivers and attendants, and requires Southeastrans to amend its subcontract agreements to increase financial penalties for non-compliance.
More broadly, DHS will continue to look for ways to strengthen its monitoring and oversite of licensed providers. Already, it has begun the work necessary to create a division that oversees provider licensure, monitoring and certification.
In addition, Medicaid contract monitors have reached out to all providers of non-emergency transportation in Arkansas asking them to ensure that all drivers and transportation attendants are re-educated on transportation regulations. Unannounced monitoring and inspections of other non-emergency transportation vehicles will be ongoing this summer.