Ed Mays fumes about it once a month as he and his wife wait in line to board at the Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry landing.
They sit and wait and watch as cars and SUVs drive past them and to a much shorter line designated for people with medical priority boarding passes, state-issued slips that let some people skip to the head of the line.
As he sits in the ferry line, which in the summer can extend for miles and take 90 minutes or longer to pass through, Mays is extremely skeptical that everyone in the medical line has a medical need to be there, he said.
“They’re not going to the doctor; they’re not going to the hospital,” Mays said. “That’s what the passes are supposed to be for.”
Some people in the line are residents who got a pass illicitly and use it as a ticket to a special express lane around waiting tourists, he said.
ABUSE? OF COURSE
Mays is probably right, the Texas Department of Transportation, which runs the ferry system, confirmed this week.
But more than a decade after being embroiled in a controversy over changing its medical and priority pass systems, the department is moving carefully in attempting to address pass fakery, officials said.
“We see it,” said Danny Perez, a spokesman for the transportation department. “We see issues, but we’re limited about what we can do our on side.”
While anyone is eligible to receive a pass, it has been Bolivar Peninsula residents who’ve historically fought for the department to offer them. The argument is people who live on the peninsula shouldn’t have to wait in line for hours when they’re headed to Galveston for medical care.
MORE PASSES THAN PEOPLE
As of June 25, the department had issued about 5,500 of the passes, Perez said.
That’s twice as many passes as people who live permanently on the peninsula, where the official population is about 2,200, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Perez acknowledged some people with passes likely don’t have a medical condition or are using a pass that belongs to someone else.
Enforcement of pass fakers is limited, however.
Galveston County Sheriff’s Office deputies are sometimes asked to determine whether a person whose name is on a pass matches anybody in a vehicle trying to skip the line, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. The checks happen on a “random and periodic basis,” Trochesset said.
If the pass holder isn’t in the vehicle, the pass is confiscated, a hole is punched in it and it’s left at the ferry office for the legitimate holder to pick up, he said.
If a punched pass is used improperly again, it can be revoked, Trochesset said.
“I guess they give them several chances not to abuse the program,” Trochesset said.
LACK OF INTEREST
The medical pass system was created after a series of events shook up the way people boarded the ferries.
Before August 2006, the state issued passes for “routine medical procedures” and allowed people traveling from Bolivar to Galveston for medical appointments to jump to the head of the ferry line.
That same year, the department planned to begin selling $250 priority boarding passes, which officials said would be separate from the medical pass system.
That program was canceled for lack of interest, department officials said at the time. Only about 180 people signed up to buy priority passes, which was too few for the program to be viable, officials said.
Meanwhile, changes to the medical pass program were blocked when three Port Bolivar residents filed a federal lawsuit arguing they had been denied access to the ferry.
The new system is a compromise that settled that lawsuit, Perez said. Now, instead of getting a pass for a doctor’s appointment, a person can get a priority pass with a physician’s certification.
The note must certify a person has a condition that requires a temporary pass for a specified date range, or a long-term illness that justifies a pass good for up to a year.
The transportation department does not specify which medical conditions qualify a person for a priority pass, Perez said. The department also does not track which doctors sign the forms qualifying people for medical passes, he said.
The department does not track that information because of medical privacy laws, Perez said.
Dr. Nancy Hughes, a primary care physician in Galveston, said she has signed medical passes for some of her patients to skip the line. She signs passes only for people who truly need them, and rarely, if ever, receives calls from patients looking for an illicit pass, she said.
It’s possible some people have passes for reasons other than medical issues, Hughes said. She compared it to requests from patients who want a handicap parking placard, and said it was up to doctors to make ethical decisions about who they certify.
“We’re trying to make it so that people who are ill and need care faster than tourists can get served first,” she said.
The transportation department had never questioned the validity of one of her certifications, she said.
TALK OF CHANGE
State officials have discussed changes to address complaints about the current system, Perez said.
“We’re looking at remedies that would still keep us in compliance with the federal lawsuit but would also give us some flexibility that would allow us to address some of the issues that we see,” Perez said.
He could not offer any specifics about what those remedies could be, Perez said.
A FINE LINE
Dennis Borel, the executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said it might be prudent for the department to use a light hand in cracking down on pass fakers.
There are 50 million disabled Americans, Borel said.
And there are people who abuse systems set up for people with illnesses or disabilities, he said. But the public benefit of the systems outweighs the harm caused by the abusers, he said.
“There’s always going to be some tiny fraction of people that are going to try to take advantage of whatever situation it is,” he said. “But on balance, we want to spare people that have a permanent disability.”