Stars and Stripes: Senators urge VA to speed up certifying drivers to help veterans get to doctor appointments

by Sara Samora

WASHINGTON – Three senators have written a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough urging the agency to speed up its process for certifying volunteer drivers to assist veterans who need help traveling to health care appointments.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., asked McDonough to develop a timely plan to certify drivers for the Volunteer Transportation Network. The program helps veterans, especially those in rural areas, who do not have the funds or cannot drive get to medical visits.

“In rural areas across the country, a pressing concern of veterans is access to transportation to get to and from appointments,” the senators wrote in the letter. “The [Volunteer Transportation Network] has stepped in to fill that gap, with the [Disabled American Veterans] providing volunteer drivers, and even covering costs.”

The Disabled American Veterans established the Volunteer Transportation Network in 1987. The veteran organization operates the program, and more than 161 VA hospital service coordinators organize the rides throughout the United States. DAV said its transportation network has nearly 20,000 registered drivers.

However, the senators said DAV is struggling to receive support from the VA by not certifying more volunteer drivers promptly. Despite potential volunteers repeatedly following up with hospital service coordinators at the VA facilities in their area, many of them never hear back, according to the letter dated May 24.

If a potential volunteer receives and submits the paperwork to the VA, that person could wait more than six months to obtain the required physical exam as part of the certification process.

“Our efforts in recruiting volunteer drivers have been hampered by VA red tape in recent years and have only hurt those who rely on the network to receive the care they have earned through their service to this nation,” said John Kleindienst, DAV’s national director of voluntary services.

Kleindienst said the volunteer drivers had traveled more than 730 million miles and transported about 19 million veterans to their VA medical appointments throughout the United States since the Volunteer Transportation Network was established.

In 2021, the volunteer drivers worked about 500,000 hours and drove nearly 8 million miles, free of charge to veterans. DAV did not say how many volunteers are waiting for their medical examinations.

“VA received the letter on the Volunteer Transportation Network and look forward to contacting the senators to address their concerns,” said Gary Kunich, a public affairs specialist at the VA’s Office of Media Relations.

A measure to shorten the certification process was included in The Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020, which is named for the former Republican leaders of the House and Senate VA committees.

The law requires the VA establish a nationwide policy on the medical exams for the volunteer drivers no more than 90 days after the law went into effect.

The law is 340 pages of enacted changes to support the veteran community, including improving health services for women, addressing the negative culture for women at VA facilities, and helping veterans suffering from military sexual trauma. Former President Donald Trump signed the bill into law in January 2021.

However, the senators wrote no policy seems to have been established, despite multiple requests for updates.

Now, Tester, Hassan, and Tillis are calling on the VA to immediately develop and distribute a timely process to certify volunteer drivers.

“As part of that effort, VA’s Office of Occupational Health should have an open dialogue with DAV, other stakeholders in the [Volunteer Transportation Network], and veterans themselves,” the senators’ letter reads. “Once this process is finalized, VA should undergo a concerted effort to not only disseminate the updated guidance but also seek out and recruit volunteers, especially those who began the certification process but discontinued it after facing too much bureaucracy to continue.”