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Veterans office improves ride service to VA care

Clark County ends contract with VFW, will offer two vans to Dayton hospital.

For decades, local veterans who needed a ride to the Dayton VA Medical Center have been picked up by a van sometimes before sunrise, and they often won’t get back home until well in the afternoon — whether their appointment is at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m.

With the purchase of two new vans, the Clark County Veterans Office believes it not only can save taxpayer money to continue the legally mandated service, but transport more veterans and have them home faster.

“With two vans, we can do two trips,” said Cathy Ater, executive director of the county veterans office.

No longer will veterans have to sit for hours at the hospital in Dayton waiting for everyone to see their doctor before returning to Clark County as a single group.

“It will be easier on the veterans who use the service,” Ater said. “There are people who could use it, but don’t because of the long day.”

State law requires all 88 Ohio counties to provide free transportation for their veterans to the nearest Veterans Affairs medical center.

Clark County is home to nearly 13,650 veterans, and for as long as anybody can remember, the veterans office has contracted with Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1031 in Springfield for $4,000 a month to get the job done with one van.

But, the veterans office won’t be renewing the VFW’s contract after Sept. 30 and instead will begin operating the service itself on Oct. 1 using two 2013 Dodge Caravans the county is purchasing from Jeff Wyler for $48,577.

That price includes the cost to decorate both vans by Route 40 Signs, Ater said.

“We have more control,” she said, “and we can offer more services without increasing the budget.”

The current VFW van seats 12, but ridership is capped at eight in order to lessen the time it takes to pick everyone up beginning at 6:30 a.m. for the day’s appointments.

That’s led to periods when the van is booked full and veterans have to either reschedule appointments or find alternate transportation.

Cliff Denlinger, an Enon resident who served in the Marines from 1970 to 1972, doesn’t have a car and has relied on the free service the past year to get to the Dayton VA.

“If it wasn’t for them,” Denlinger said, “I wouldn’t be able to get there.”

He’s accepted the fact that he’ll have to wait on the other veterans to complete their appointments and has come to enjoy the camaraderie.

“It’d be nice if you didn’t have to sit there, but that’s part of it,” he said.

The two new county vans will sit six veterans apiece Mondays through Fridays.

The county will hire three part-time drivers at $12.50 an hour, but expects to spend less than the $48,000 annually it pays to the VFW, Ater said. A high estimate, she said, to operate and maintain the vans in-house is $47,000 annually.

“We can provide almost double the transportation for less money,” she said.

The price of the service has risen through the years. Back in 1990, the VFW was paid $500 per month.

The county agreed on $4,000 a month in 2011 in part to help Post 1031 defray the cost of a new van of its own.

From 2002 to 2009, according to Ater, the county paid Post 1031 $1,650 per month to operate the transportation service.

“In the past, it was cost effective to use the VFW,” Ater said.

For Jerry Heck, Post 1031 commander, notice that the contract wouldn’t be renewed came as a surprise.

“We’ve been doing it for a lot of years, but they feel they can do it more economically than we were,” Heck said. “I’m going to reserve judgment.”

Post 1031 has operated an ambulance service for local veterans since 1952, and has been driving for the county veterans office for possibly 30 years, he said.

“As long as the veterans don’t suffer, that’s what counts,” Heck said.

Last month, the VFW van transported 62 individual veterans multiple times to the VA medical center in Dayton, Ater said.

In 2012, 1,214 Clark County veterans received rides to Dayton, a figure that includes some repeat riders.

William Gay, a 68-year-old Enon resident who served as an Air Force firefighter from 1963 to 1967, has been using the van service since 2011.

“I can’t complain about their service,” Gay said. “It’s been great.”

He said he doesn’t mind having to wait for the other veterans before coming home.

“I’d probably be sitting at home watching television,” Gay reasoned. “This way, I get to have a conversation with the other guys.”

But, when told he soon will be able to get home sooner, he confessed, “That’d be kind of nice.”

Earlier this year, the veterans office explored buying a second, and potentially a third, transport vehicle in partnership with the local Disabled American Veterans chapter to augment the VFW van.

The veterans office is exploring the possibility of entering one of its new vans in a program in which the VA licenses, insures, fuels and maintains a vehicle after it’s already purchased.

Ater stressed that the service likely will experience a few initial hiccups once the county takes over on Oct. 1.

“It’s going to create more work for us, but in the long run, the flexibility we’re going to have will pay off,” she said. “It comes down to the service we can provide to the veterans.”

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