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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 21st, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 16 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 16

All aboard the Vet Express: Additional funding for veteran transportation and phone services passes House, moves to Senate

By Kasey Bubnash

When Greg Shearer was finally called in to see his doctor at the San Luis Obispo Community Based Outpatient Clinic in 2006, he noticed she seemed distraught. 

The health care facility, which is run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provides varying degrees of health care services to veterans of all kinds on the Central Coast. But the closest major VA medical center—where veterans go for more extensive health care services, including surgeries and high-tech screenings—is in Los Angeles. 

Shearer said his doctor told him that without cars of their own or family members to help, several of her patients had struggled making it to appointments in San Luis Obispo, and especially to the medical center in Los Angeles. She said many of her patients had essentially opted out of health care solely because they lacked transportation options, Shearer said. 


ROUTING OUT
All calls made to the veteran Community Based Outpatient Clinics in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria (pictured), and Santa Barbara are routed to the major medical center for veterans in Los Angeles. It can take hours for vets to schedule basic health care appointments.
FILE PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE

When Shearer got home that day, he couldn’t get the issue off his mind, and he started looking for solutions. 

Shearer started the “Your Pennies For Our Veterans” campaign that year, a fundraising effort aimed at providing transportation services for veterans in need. The campaign eventually gained the attention of Mark Shaffer, director of Ride-On Transportation, who Shearer said offered Ride-On’s services. 

Together Shearer and Shaffer launched the Vet Express in October 2008, and they made a little more than 10 trips to and from health care appointments a month. Now, Shearer said the nonprofit makes roughly 150 trips a month. 

Although the Vet Express, which is funded solely through donations, has struggled to stay afloat over the years, Shearer said it often feels like he and his team are the only people working to address the barriers vets face while seeking medical care. 

But that, he said, is changing. 

“It’s been a long hard struggle and we’ve just got to resolve this problem,” Shearer told the Sun, adding that the issue is finally gaining political attention. 

Several amendments to H.R. 5895—the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act of 2019—that tackle the transportation issue passed the U.S. House of Representatives on June 8. 

The amendments, which were written and pushed forward by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), would allocate $8 million toward improving and expanding veteran transportation services. Carbajal said that aside from the Vet Express, there is only one VA-funded bus providing transportation services to Central Coast vets. 

That bus, which Carbajal said is driven exclusively by volunteer drivers, makes six stops before reaching the VA hospital in Los Angeles. The lack of rides, and length of rides that are available, can make it difficult for vets to make scheduled health appointments on time, Carbajal said. 

Through increased funding to the Veterans Transportation Program, Carbajal said the VA would be able to expand various programs, including Beneficiary Travel, the Veterans Transportation Service, and Highly Rural Transportation Grants. 

Another $5 million would go toward revamping the VA phone system, which Carbajal said currently routes all calls made to the Central Coast’s Community Based Outpatient Clinics to the major medical center in Los Angeles. It typically takes more than 20 minutes just to connect with an operator, Carbajal said, and can take more than an hour to schedule a simple doctor’s appointment. 

“Often times [veterans] don’t continue to make appointments because it takes hours,” Carbajal told the Sun. That, he said, is a “travesty.” 

Instead of routing all calls to the Los Angeles medical center, Carbajal said his amendments would help fund the additional staffing and technological changes needed to provide phone systems that would run locally through the Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. 

While H.R. 5895 still has to pass the U.S. Senate and the president’s desk in order to be implemented, Carbajal said he thinks his amendments will make the cut. 

“It’s important for our vets,” Carbajal said, “and it’s important for our community.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.









Weekly Poll
Should the county Public Health Department help elementary schools apply for the state’s waiver program?

Yes, that’s what the department is there for.
Schools shouldn’t open at all right now, nevermind with the county’s help.
If the state thinks schools are ready, what’s the problem?
Schools should have to fend for themselves; it shows whether they’re ready to handle reopening.

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