After buying a pair of vans with funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, Goodhue County’s Veteran Services Office is hoping to provide additional options for veterans in need of transportation to the VA Hospital in Minneapolis.
Traditionally, Goodhue County’s VSO has opted for a decentralized approach to providing rides. While some counties expect veterans to come to a centralized location for their ride to the VA, in Goodhue County, drivers are available to come to a veteran’s home.
That approach has helped to account for Goodhue County’s significant geographic size and to accommodate the mobility issues of many of the county’s veterans. It’s been made possible by a small network of volunteer drivers who provide their own vehicles for the task.
Veterans Service Director Justin Kent said that use of the system has increased. Among the factors leading to that increase have been the aging of Vietnam-era veterans, the impact of inflation and surging gas prices, and an increased willingness on the part of some veterans to ask for help when they need it.
“We’re seeing some cultural changes among veterans,” he said. “Seeking help and seeking medical care for those kinds of things is increasing.”
Kent thanked the Board of Commissioners for supporting the current transportation program, which he lauded as among the most comprehensive in the state. However, he said that organizing rides for all of the veterans who need one has become an incredibly intensive and time consuming task.
“Right now, the CVSO is spending about half the day working on rides,” he told the board. “Some of that is (because) a veteran will call in the day before their ride, and then we’ve got to scramble and find them a ride.”
While the CVSO strongly encourages veterans to let them know about any upcoming appointments they might need transportation for as soon as possible, Kent said that sometimes the task is left to the last minute, especially by veterans who may have memory challenges.
Kent hopes that county-owned vans can streamline the process, enabling the county to serve more veterans more efficiently. Because the county would assume liability and responsibility for the vans, he hopes that the program could even attract more drivers.
Under the hybrid plan, Kent and County Surveyor Lisa Hanni recommended to the board, at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, drivers could use the county vehicles to drive multiple veterans to the Minneapolis VA in one trip.
As under the existing program, drivers would pick up and drop off each veteran at their house. The two vans would be stationed in Red Wing and Zumbrota, servicing the northern and southern portions of the county respectively.
CVSO staff have used the vans to transport veterans, often to go to the Minneapolis VA when no other option is available. However, the lack of agreed upon compensation for drivers prevented them from being used as part of the existing program.
Kent and Hanni recommended that drivers of county vehicles receive a fixed per diem payment, instead of being compensated for mileage as drivers have been to date. Under this plan, they projected that the cost of transporting veterans with the vans would actually increase slightly.
In addition, the imperative to squeeze in more appointments and travel to pick up more veterans would significantly increase the length of the trip for each veteran. Hanni and Kent estimated the average trip would increase to about eight hours with the vans, compared to a bit over five hours now.
Hanni stressed that utilizing the new vans would not necessarily entail moving away from the personalized transportation veterans currently receive. For a variety of reasons, including the health care needs of the veteran, personalized transportation might be best for some.
“We’ll have to make that decision on a veteran by veteran basis,” Kent added. “It’s one of those tasks that we are absolutely going to step up to.”