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State shuttles vets to medical appointments

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In 2011, van drivers for the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Huntington traveled 802,115 miles and took 20,706 veterans to and from medical appointments.

That accounts for only one of the state's four VA hospitals and a portion of the Veterans Transportation Program, said Keith Gwinn, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Assistance.

"If they stopped that, a lot of veterans would be affected," Gwinn said.

Through the program veterans get rides to and from medical appointments. Home pick-up is available for those who need it, Gwinn said, although many use a central pick-up location.

Those who lack transportation get it, and others save on the cost of travel, he said.

The vans will take people to appointments locally or as far away as Lexington, Ky., or Pittsburgh, Gwinn said.

Linda Markham, chief of voluntary services at the Huntington VA hospital, said a van travels from Huntington to Charleston every day of the week. Most of the vans carry about seven passengers, with annual training required for drivers, she said.

"I think the veterans truly appreciate what we have to offer," Markham said.

A recent request for all state agencies to reduce their budgets for the next budget year will affect the program, but Gwinn said the department is looking at other cost-saving measures.

In August Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked every state agency to reduce its budget by 7.5 percent for the fiscal year that starts next July 1. Gwinn said that translates to a $358,000 total cut, with $100,000 coming from the transportation program.

That amount is coming from an allotted $150,000 that goes entirely toward purchasing new vans, Gwinn said. There are currently 52 vans in use, and the department expects to purchase 17 more in the next 10 months.

Those purchases will be unaffected by the budget cuts requested for next year, he said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for vehicle fuel and maintenance, leaving the responsibility for procuring vans and drivers to the state agency, Gwinn said.

Although the drivers are considered volunteers, they are paid $75 every day they drive. Some drivers are working every day and make close to $19,000 a year, Gwinn said.

"If that's a volunteer program, maybe that's too high," Gwinn said.

The law creating the $75 fee took effect in 2008, said Mike Lyons, operations manager for the state Department of Veterans Assistance. He said the transportation program has been around for more than a decade.

At the time it was created, there were discussions of making the pay $50. Gwinn said that could be considered.   

Markham doesn't think drivers are in the program for the money. Of the roughly 50 volunteers who drive at her hospital, she thinks most don't drive five days a week. She said they're generally retired, specifically mentioning a former lieutenant colonel and a former bank president.

"You have all different types (of) very, very good people," Markham said Tuesday in a phone interview. "As a matter of fact, a lot of them were volunteer drivers before the money..."

There are about 182,000 veterans living in West Virginia, Gwinn said. Markham said those who participate in the program are grateful.  

"It means a great deal to the veterans because without our transportation service, most of them would not be able to meet their scheduled appointments," Markham said.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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