ROCKLAND, Maine — Islanders served by the Maine State Ferry Service are hoping legislators will rescue a bill that would allow for lockboxes to be placed on ferries for medical specimens to be brought to the mainland.
The bill, LD 1468, is at risk of sinking following its veto Wednesday by Gov. Paul LePage, who referred to the measure as an unnecessary mandate. The state ferry system serves Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus.
“This has a pretty big impact on daily life,” said Nick Battista, marine program director for the Rockland-based Island Institute.
Jon Emerson, chairman of the North Haven Board of Selectmen, said the legislation is important to residents of this Penobscot Bay Island, which has a year-round population of about 355 people.
Until last April, islands with clinics would deliver coolers containing blood and other medical samples to the ferry terminal on the island. A state ferry employee then would place the cooler on the ship and hand it over to a designated person on the mainland to be brought to a medical facility.
That system had worked so well for North Haven at least 20 years, the board chairman said, that management of the ferry system was not even aware of the arrangement. He said there had been a few occasions when the cooler was overlooked and the delivery was not completed, but that was the rare exception.
Then last April, managers of the ferry found out about the arrangement and said it could not continue, Emerson said. Three reasons were cited, according to the selectman: apprehensions about handling potentially infectious materials, distracting employees from their jobs and Homeland Security concerns.
Emerson said representatives of the island, including the Maine State Ferry Advisory Board, tried to work with the Maine Department of Transportation to alleviate their concerns. He maintained that the islanders were able to refute claims about the infectious threat, saying federal regulations allow for such delivery of medical samples via public transportation.
The island representatives also worked with the Coast Guard so designated people could receive security clearances to deliver the coolers to the ferry and put them a lockbox. Then on the mainland another person with clearance could retrieve the samples.
The chairman said it appeared the issue was being settled, but then the state DOT reversed itself for unknown reasons. The ferry service agreed, however, to give the clinic a free ticket once per week for someone to hand carry the cooler to the mainland and return.
Even with that concession, the lack of a lockbox system would cost the island thousands of dollars per year for deliveries on other days, Emerson said. For the past year, the clinic has collected samples three times per week and had them hand delivered to the mainland. Before last April, samples could be delivered any day, he said.
The 12.5-mile route takes one hour and 10 minutes each way.
Dinah Moyer, executive director of the Islands Community Medical Services clinic on Vinalhaven, said that since the ferry service stopped delivering samples for that facility, the clinic has had to hire someone at $20 per run for medical deliveries to the mainland.
“This has had a financial impact, a logistical impact, and it could have a medical impact,” Moyer said.
She said if there is medication someone needs on the island from the mainland, the individual won’t get it unless someone physically goes over to get it.
The Vinalhaven route is 15 miles and takes one hour, 15 minutes. The island’s population is nearly 1,200 on a year-round basis.
Moyer said that other islands such as Swans Island also have been affected by this issue. Swans Island is a 6-mile route that takes 40 minutes.
Democratic state Sen. David Miramant of Camden put forward the legislation that would require each ferry have a lockbox.
The bill, however, also required the state DOT to undertake a peer review of the Maine State Ferry Service processes to evaluate staffing levels and duties, transportation of hazardous materials, transportation of medical samples and customer service. The Knox County state senator said this was done at the request of residents of the islands in Penobscot Bay.
Miramant said the transportation department said it was going to conduct such a review anyway and he saw no harm in including the requirement in the law. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee unanimously backed the bill which was approved by a voice vote of the Senate and was approved 90-59 by the House on April 7.
Gov. LePage, however, vetoed the bill Wednesday, saying the law was not needed.
His office did not respond to requests for comment, but in LePage’s veto letter, he stated, “Maine DOT is focused on providing its customers the best service possible. When the Legislature puts additional and, in this case, unnecessary mandates upon the department, it hinders its ability to focus on the core mission. No one has suggested that the Maine Ferry Service operates unsafely. Studying an issue that is not an issue won’t make it any safer.”
The governor claimed the state was working in good faith to meet the underlying goals of the bill but that its supporters “walked away from the agreement at the 11th hour.”
Miramant said he is confident the Legislature can muster the two-thirds votes in the House and Senate to override the governor’s veto. The Legislature will return to session April 29 to consider veto overrides.
North Haven Board Chairman Emerson said that islanders are planning to plead their cases with legislators in hopes the bill can be saved.
“It may be a small issue for them, but for us it’s important,” he said.