Legion: VA transportation services are vital

The American Legion testified in favor of a House bill that makes permanent the authority of the Department of Veterans Affairs to transport individuals to and from VA facilities "in connection with rehabilitation, counseling, examination, treatment and care."

The Veterans Transportation Service Act (H.R. 1702) was one of several bills The American Legion supported at a July 9 hearing by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health. Jacob Gadd, the Legion’s deputy director for health, testified before the subcommittee and also submitted written testimony.

H.R. 1702 needs to be passed to make certain that VA’s Veterans Transportation Service (VTS) becomes a permanent authority that can hire drivers and related staff as full-time VA employees.

"For years, VA transportation programs and initiatives have been viewed as ancillary or secondary service areas," Gadd told the subcommittee. "But The American Legion recognizes that veterans transportation programs are vital and often the difference between whether a veteran is seen for care or not."

VTS was created as a VA Transformation Initiative to ensure that veterans with serious injuries or illnesses who lived in remote areas would get access to reliable transportation. In May 2012, VA’s general counsel opined that the department "only has the authority to use volunteer drivers" to provide veterans with transportation, "not paid employees."

This ruling was made soon after The American Legion issued its System Worth Saving Report on Rural Health Care. Its findings are based on nationwide visits to VA medical centers and on feedback from veterans at Legion-hosted town hall meetings. The report details some of the difficult challenges faced by veterans living in rural areas of states such as Wyoming, New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas and Maine.

The Legion’s report on rural health found that the prospect of driving long distances dissuaded many veterans from receiving VA health care they needed. The report also found that VTS was a viable solution, but VA’s current organizational structure for transportation programs is fragmented and sometimes ineffective.

Gadd shared comments from a veteran in Nevada with the subcommittee. The veteran told The American Legion that many veterans in the state must travel up to 200 miles to VA medical centers for treatment. Available van pools require veterans "to leave their residence very early and not return until very late in the day," Gadd said. Because of their medical conditions, not all veterans can withstand such a travel schedule and opt to use their own vehicles. "A number of these veterans are subjected to a fixed budget and often find the cost of travel for medical care a rather large burden," Gadd reported.

Based on the findings of its report – and in response to VA’s general counsel ruling – The American Legion adopted Resolution 293: "Veterans Transportation System and Benefits Travel."  It urged VA to establish a transportation department within each of its 152 medical centers to coordinate and oversee all transportation programs for a particular facility.

To supplement its VTS operations, VA has been exploring the use of other transportation service providers, such as veterans service organizations, other non-profits such as United We Ride, community and commercial providers, and government transportation services.

If veterans’ transportation needs are not met by VA, they may be forced to get their health care elsewhere – or perhaps not at all. VTS is a critical service, and Gadd urged the subcommittee "to work with our organization to expand VTS and require VA to establish programs that maximize coordination, efficiency and availability of transportation options to veterans."

Other Legion-supported bills considered at the hearing included:

• Tinnitus Research and Treatment Act (H.R. 1443): Recognizes tinnitus as a mandatory condition for research and treatment by VA.

• Safe Housing for Homeless Veterans Act (H.R. 2065): Would amend Title 38 of the U.S. Code to require recipients of VA per diem payments for services provided to homeless veterans to comply with codes relevant to operations and levels of care provided.

Draft legislation for the Long-Term Care Veterans Choice Act was also considered at the hearing. The American Legion currently has no position on this bill, which would authorize VA to place veterans in non-departmental adult foster homes.

However, the Legion has noted a VA trend over the past several years in reducing the institutional care options for veterans. Resolution 121, passed last August, calls on VA to 1) restore its Nursing Home Care Unit bed capacity to the 1998 level of 13,391; and 2) create incentives and receive appropriate funding to maintain its nursing home care unit beds rather than abandon them to alternative sources.

The resolution also asks Congress to appropriate sufficient funds to support the provisions of the non-institutional, long-term care mandates of Public Law 106-117, the Millennium Act, so that VA is not forced to reduce its nursing home care unit capacity in order to comply with said non-institutional care mandates.

If VA doesn’t address its shortfall in long-term care beds, the consequence may be that state veterans homes and other non-VA care options will become overtaxed, and eligible veterans will not receive adequate care.