CLEVELAND - RTA's own internal auditors are questioning close to $2 million in prescription payments made for some of its employees, the FOX 8 I-Team learned.
A confidential audit summary obtained by the I-Team shows that, in one case, RTA paid more than $1.5 million for 103 prescriptions of Flonase. That works out to more than $14,600 per prescription.
"That's shocking," said Ward 8 Councilman Mike Polensek, the longest-serving member of Cleveland City Council.
This comes at a time when, separately, state budget cuts are leading RTA to reduce service on some routes. The agency's board is expected to postpone a possible rate increase for further study.
"When you talk about a rate increase next time, someone's going to (say), 'What about the $14,000 bottle of Flonase?'" Polensek said.
"We cannot have this kind of waste with our transit system that people depend on every day," said Marvin Ranaldson, a public transportation advocate, who is the Northeast Ohio coordinator of All Aboard Ohio.
RTA declined to do an interview to explain exactly how the questioned payments occurred. The agency said it won't do an interview because of a pending investigation.
It has said it found the problem, stopped it and is working with the authorities
Late on Friday afternoon, RTA emailed us, saying it disputed our numbers, writing that rounded numbers we had shared with the agency, "in regard to prescription payment amounts and the dollars associated with a specific drug involved are inaccurate."
We emailed back, saying the numbers were based on RTA's own internal audit summary. The name of the auditor on the summary matches the name of an auditor who worked at RTA at the time the summary was prepared.
We asked RTA if it still wanted us to say that it disputes our numbers. As of the time this story was written, RTA had not responded to that question.
It did send an email that said it couldn't comment further because of the ongoing investigation. It also provided its hotline where people can report fraud. That number is 216-350-5130.
In its earlier email, RTA indicated it is taking action to try, and recover any and all losses. RTA has not indicated it has recovered any of the money.
The audit summary is from February 2017, and so far, no charges have been filed.
"I think it's time for the board to step up, and hold the staff accountable for these mistakes," Randalson said, "in the end, they're the ones responsible to the voters and the residence of Cuyahoga County to insure this system is run properly."
RTA gets most of its money from a countywide penny sales tax, and from train and bus fares. State funding appears to be drying up.
The agency is, to a large extent, self-insured-- meaning it pays for a large share of its health care costs out of its own pocket.
The internal audit summary, obtained by the I-Team, shows that for a 14-month period (January 2015 to March 2016), RTA paid for 15 different prescriptions in two different ways: what the auditors termed "conventional" and "questioned."
Under the conventional way, RTA only paid about $10.59 for each prescription of Flonase (a few years back, it was available by prescription, though today, it is an over-the-counter medication).
It's the questioned way where auditors found the average of more than $14,600 per prescription.
In addition, the audtiors questioned payments regarding 14 other types of prescription drugs. All total, the internal review questioned more than $1.8 million in payments.
"How is this even allowed?" Ranaldson said. "How does the bureaucracy let this happen?"
Lauren Brock is an RTA rider, who said she uses it is her primary means of transportation.
"I use it to go to work, I use it to pick up my prescriptions, I use it....for everything," she said.
Told about the questioned prescription payments, Lauren said, "I work for everything I have. And if they're just throwing money around like that, why are they in charge?"
Likewise, Edith Dunlap, a retired federal probation worker, said she relies on RTA.
When service on the Route 37 bus was cut a couple years ago, Dunlap said it turned what had been an 8-minute ride into one that took her almost an hour to get to where she was going.
Asked about the questioned prescription payments, Dunlap said, "I think it's unfair that, because of what they're doing, they pass it onto us." Pass it on, she said, in the form of higher fares and reduced routes.
Councilman Polensek said he respects RTA's leadership, but that if something doesn't change, the agency's initials will stand for "Return to The Automobile."
But many people may not have that option, which is why they are so upset over the questioned prescription payments.
"If they're not managing the money well," Brock said, "then were the ones who are paying for it."
UPDATE: On Saturday, March 10, RTA provided this statement to Fox 8:
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) issued the following statement to WJW TV-8 in response to Bill Sheil's Friday report about RTA's Internal Audit investigation into prescription drug payments.
As a result of an internal risk assessment, RTA Internal Audit identified some issues of concern and immediately launched an investigation.
We also notified other entities, who were likely unaware of fraudulent prescription payouts, that they were likely the subject of a nationwide scam.
Without providing specific details, what we can tell you is, we found it, we stopped the payouts and we contacted the appropriate federal authorities.
We have already put internal controls in place to ensure that this does not happen again, and we have already taken action to recover any and all losses to RTA.
This investigation is still ongoing, so we cannot provide any additional details at this time, but hope to do so soon.