Marine Corps veteran David Hatfield had hoped to get a ride recently from Springfield to his appointment at the Dayton VA Medical Center.
When he called the Clark County Veterans Office two days ahead of time to schedule a ride, he was told what more and more local veterans have heard — the van that makes a daily trip to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Dayton was already full.
“I wish they had more vans,” said Hatfield, 62, who had to reschedule his appointment.
The veterans office hopes to get a second transport vehicle this fall to provide more of the county’s nearly 13,650 veterans with free rides to the VA medical center in Dayton.
A second vehicle, which the county would buy in partnership with the local Disabled American Veterans chapter, also would allow for the service to expand to the VA’s outpatient clinic on Burnett Road.
By law, the state’s 88 counties have to provide free transportation for veterans to the nearest VA medical facility.
“We’ve had questions about why we don’t supply transportation to the local clinic,” said Doug Wood, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran and the service officer for DAV Chapter 13.
In Clark County, transportation to Dayton has been contracted for years with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1031 in Springfield. The county pays the post $4,000 a month to operate and maintain a single van, which picks up veterans anywhere in the county and drives them to Dayton and back five days a week.
However, the new vehicle would be licensed, insured, fueled and maintained by the Dayton VA Medical Center itself once it was purchased by Clark County and the local DAV. The county will apply in October for a vehicle in the VA program, said Cathy Ater, executive director of the Clark County Veterans Office.
If everything goes OK, the county will apply for a second DAV vehicle — its third veterans transport overall — next year.
“It doesn’t cost the county a lot of money,” Ater said. “It’s there, so why not try to take advantage of it?”
On a more than $26,000 vehicle, for example, the DAV would give $14,500 toward its purchase, with the county picking up the rest, Ater said. The DAV has committed to giving a minimum of $13,000 toward a purchase through an agreement with Ford.
Once the vehicle logs 200,000 miles, it’s turned back over to the local DAV chapter.
DAV Chapter 13 has been saving money, Wood said, but also plans to hold fundraisers.
The county would be required to hire two part-time drivers, but that would be the end of any local investment.
“We just drive it,” Ater said. “It’s a great program.”
The vehicle would be wrapped in the logo of the DAV.
“It’s good exposure for our local DAV chapter,” Wood said. “But the main thing is, we’re going to take care of the veterans a lot better.”
Increasingly, the current van operated by the VFW is full. While the van seats 12, ridership is capped at eight because of the time involved in picking up veterans each morning, Ater said.
Last year, the van transported 1,214 Clark County veterans — including some repeat riders — to Dayton, Ater said.
“It just happened gradually,” she said. “It may be that more people are seeking VA health care.”
It’s also partially a sign of the times, as people struggle financially.
“I’ve had trouble getting people to get me there,” said Hatfield, a resident of East Liberty Street who started using the van service in December. “Some people just don’t have the time to take me or they didn’t have the gas, either. I don’t have the gas.”
Colonel Randolph — a Springfield resident whose given name is Colonel, despite the fact that he only held the rank of private in the Army — uses the service because he doesn’t have a car.
“It’s an excellent service,” Randolph, 67, said. “I’ve never not been picked up.”
Until a second vehicle is available, Ater suggests that veterans wanting a ride call her office at 937-521-2030 as soon as possible.
“A lot of times,” she said, “they’ll call the day before, which is never a good idea. As soon as they have an appointment, they need to call us and get on the schedule.”
Madison County has two DAV vehicles that are maintained by the Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center in Columbus, said Jennifer Moore, director of that county’s veterans service office. The county only has to pay its drivers and create monthly reports, and the hospital does the rest, she said.
“It was cost effective to do it this way,” Moore said.
Champaign County, which provides free rides to its veterans through the Champaign Transit System to VA medical facilities in Springfield, Dayton and Columbus, might have to go that route as well.
The Champaign County Veterans Service Office entered into a new agreement in November with the transit system, but the rates have skyrocketed, according to Buzzy Moore, director of the veterans service office. A single trip last year from Urbana to the Dayton VA cost his office $27. Now, it’s anywhere from $145 to $155.
“We’ll eventually have to get a van, too,” he said. “When we entered into the agreement, we didn’t think the cost would be this outrageous.”