Blood samples on ferries nixed

SWANS ISLAND — A bill to facilitate the transport of blood samples from outer-island health clinics to the mainland by the Maine State Ferry Service was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage last week, apparently because of other provisions in the bill.

Supporters of the bill, LD 1486, hope legislators will override the veto when they return to Augusta this Friday to reconsider bills the governor vetoed after the Legislature adjourned April 16. It takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to override a veto.

The bill would require all Maine State Ferry Service vessels to be outfitted with a lockbox for transporting “medical diagnostic samples.” This would make it possible for medical clinics on outer islands to resume sending blood samples to the mainland on state ferries without having to provide a courier.

When blood is drawn in clinics on an outer island, it is sent to a hospital laboratory on the mainland, where it is tested for such things as cholesterol, blood sugar levels or anemia.

Donna Wiegle, director and sole employee of the Mill Pond Health Center on Swans Island, testified before a legislative committee in support of the bill in January. She said that for nearly 10 years, state ferry employees had transported a small cooler bag with lab samples once a week to the ferry terminal in Bass Harbor, where a courier from Mount Desert Island Hospital picked it up.

The ferry employees “seemed happy to help our community by performing this service as a courtesy,” Wiegle testified. “No crew member or captain ever expressed any concerns over doing this simple task. It was working seamlessly.”

Then, last April, the Ferry Service notified her and health center directors on North Haven and Vinalhaven that the ferry crews would no longer provide that service.

Citing health and safety concerns, Ferry Service officials said that any medical samples transported by ferry had to be accompanied by someone at all times.

Wiegle said she could pay someone to take the samples, but with an annual budget of $30,000, she doesn’t have much money to spare. Instead, she has been closing the clinic for a couple of hours on Tuesdays and carrying blood samples on the ferry to Bass Harbor herself.

“I had to do it because it’s such an important service to my community,” she said. “My patients know I draw blood every Tuesday, so that’s when they show up.”

Wiegle said she wouldn’t want to have to tell patients, especially elderly ones, that they have to spend the time and money to go to MDI Hospital to have their blood drawn.

“When they come to the clinic, they can be back home in 20 minutes with no expense involved, and I even give them a cup of coffee,” she said.

Wiegle said the only concession the Ferry Service has made is allowing her to ride for free when she is carrying medical samples.

She and the other outer-island health center directors met several times with officials of the Ferry Service, which is a division of the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT). She said the idea of having a locked box for medical samples on each ferry seemed to be a solution that everyone was comfortable with. But then the Ferry Service said it was unacceptable, citing its own security plan and U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

That’s when a bill was introduced to direct the Ferry Service to adopt the lockbox solution. Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle), whose district includes Swans Island, North Haven and Vinalhaven, was a co-sponsor of the bill.

The governor apparently vetoed the bill because of provisions that have nothing to do with the transport of medical samples. Those provisions include changing the makeup of the Ferry Service Advisory Board and requiring the Ferry Service to assess or make changes involving operating procedures, safety, staffing, training and customer service.

The governor wrote in his veto message to the Legislature that the DOT is focused on providing 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 that 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.”


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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