State partners with group to transport vets
HUNTINGTON - West Virginia is returning to its partnership with the national Disabled American Veterans nonprofit to provide transportation to VA Medical Centers in the state and dissolving the state program that provided stipends to the drivers.
Gov. Jim Justice announced last week the state is entering into a partnership with DAV to provide transportation to the VA medical centers in Huntington, Clarksburg, Beckley and Martinsburg. In exchange for DAV providing the volunteer drivers and three new vans, West Virginia will purchase four new vans. Justice said he will also recommend to the Legislature that they provide funding for six additional vans. Each year more vans will be purchased until all have been replaced.
Beginning July 1, 2019, the DAV will use its volunteer network to provide drivers at no cost to the state.
Prior to 2014, the DAV operated the van transportation program in West Virginia, but state officials decided at that time that the state would take over operations.
Since 2014, the state has provided a stipend to the drivers. The stipend is currently between $65-$70. The state will use the stipend funding to buy the new vans, said Department of Veterans Assistant Secretary Dennis Davis.
Davis said as he reviewed the transportation program, he found several problems. The vans were being used to pick up people other than veterans, like athletic teams. The vans were also being taken across state lines to pick up veterans in other states.
Mainly, though, the vans are old, and the state cannot afford to replace them while still providing a stipend.
“It’s been made clear to me some drivers who were paid the stipend wanted that to continue, and I understand that, but it created difficulties because we couldn’t afford to pay stipends and replace the vehicles,” Davis said. “I saw one the other day that was a 2001. Veterans deserve better than that. Going down the road in clunkers is not good.”
So Davis reached out to DAV, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to assist disabled veterans, to see if West Virginia could rejoin their organization, which provides transportation services in all 50 states.
“They said they would have us as long as we understood they wouldn’t pay drivers,” Davis said.
The decision has left some veterans concerned.
Earskel Caul, a U.S. Army veteran and officer for the West Virginia Disabled American Veterans, said to stop paying the drivers was not fair to the veterans of the state.
“What they don’t realize is this program has changed from 15 to 20 years ago,” Caul said. “Back then you had job where you could retire. Veterans could give some time to other good causes. This is 2018, and the environment we are in this state where most of the plants are shut down, people haven’t had an opportunity to retire and live the life they think we live. They need the money.”
Caul said for just $650,000 a year, 125 drivers currently cover the whole state, into the hills and hollows to save lives of veterans who otherwise could not make it to the doctor.
“To be able to get the amount of vets we have now in this program is going to be very hard to replace,” Caul said. “People aren’t going to get up at 4 a.m. to drive eight hours a day for nothing.”
Caul also took exception to the idea the vans were being misused, claiming some of the vans had been auctioned off with the decals still on them.
“Take us in the Huntington Tri-State,” he said. “We go into Kentucky and Ohio. We have to.”
Through a spokesperson, the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington said the purchase of new vans will be helpful “as our drivers transport between 1,800-2,000 veterans monthly.”
Davis said he has no fear they will find enough volunteers to run the program despite the lack of compensation, saying there were more than enough before the state took over the program.
“We will launch a recruiting program soon, and I’m pretty confident we will get drivers,” he said.
The state will continue to pay drivers through the end of June, when the fiscal year ends and the new DAV partnership begins.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.