DAV gets influx of volunteers

Great Falls Tribune

by Jenn Rowell

VA program will likely get extension

The area chapter of Disabled American Veterans recently announced it had to cut its veteran transportation service from five days to four due to a shortage of volunteer drivers. After a Tribune article about the shortage, the DAV received about 30 volunteers who are now going through the application process.

Joe Parsetich said they’re now at capacity for volunteer drivers, and he expects Monday through Friday transportation to resume in February or March.

“It’s exciting to see that kind of response from the community,” he said. “The outpouring of support from the community was so much appreciated.”

In Great Falls and Cascade County, there are 10,890 veterans, according to DAV stats. DAV drivers average 1.2 million miles across Montana annually, Parsetich said. The DAV program provides the vans and pays for gas, but drivers volunteer their time. At the same time, Sen. Jon Tester was working on a bill that would allow the transportation program operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs to operate permanently.

The Veterans Transportation Service is staffed by VA employees and is able to assist and transport veterans in wheelchairs and veterans needing additional assistance.

Tester’s bill is pending a vote but is expected to pass this week.

David Thunstrom, mobil­ity manager for the VTS program, said the program made about 8,800 trips during its existence. In January, the program will mark its second anniversary.

The program offers the VA a significant savings since the veterans using the transportation services don’t get the mileage reimbursement that veterans who drive themselves to medical appointments receive.

According to Tester’s office, the program saved the VA $30,000 in travel reimbursements in the month of November alone.

The VA estimates the program will save $19.2 million in fiscal year 2014 and $102.7 million over five years nationwide.

Previously, the program had to be reauthorized each year, but Tester’s bill will remove the year to year authorization requirement.

Thunstrom said that the program doesn’t currently have enough resources to handle all requests and focuses on veterans in wheelchairs since they’d have to use an ambulance otherwise, which is a significant cost to the VA. His office also tries to coordinate with local transportation or other resources like the DAV transport program when possible.

“The demand is far greater than the resources that we have,” he said.