IOWA CITY — Officials at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center say their patients — who sometimes travel hours to reach the Eastern Iowa hospital — don’t always have the means to make the journey.
So one program aims to change that.
“That’s the reason why I do this,” said Rick Martin, a 73-year-old Cedar Rapids man who has joined a core of volunteers that aims to reduce barriers for area veterans seeking medical and mental health services.
Every Monday through Friday, a fleet of 28 vehicles in the Volunteer Transportation Network provides free rides to patients from their hometowns to appointments at the VA hospital within the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System, the $294.5 million system that serves more than 50,000 veterans.
These vehicles are driven by volunteers like Martin, many of whom are veterans themselves.
“Our veterans do a great job just looking out for each other,” said Maritza Rodriguez, volunteer services specialist who coordinates the program.
Drivers travel across the health care system’s service area, which stretches across 53 counties in Eastern Iowa as well as parts of western Illinois and one northern Missouri county. They pick up patients from their hometowns and drive them to the Iowa City VA for their appointments, and back home again.
The Iowa City VA’s transportation program is the second largest in the nation, behind the VA in Minneapolis.
In January, the program transported 632 patients to the Iowa City VA, totaling to 51,468 miles and 2,022 driver hours.
Volunteer drivers could transport as many as 900 veterans during some months, Rodriguez said.
Martin — a retired veteran who spent 22 years in the Navy — joined as a volunteer driver 10 years ago and now drives a route from Cedar Rapids. Five of the program’s 28 vehicles are located in Cedar Rapids, the second largest patient base for the Iowa City VA behind the Quad Cities.
This past week, Martin transported David Dempster, 64-year-old Cedar Rapids resident and Air Force veteran, to his appointments at the Iowa City VA.
Dempster started using the transport about six weeks ago. He said he has bad balance and takes tai chi classes to improve his condition.
However, Dempster said driving on Interstate 380 makes him nervous, and he would find himself shaking badly by the time he would arrive in Iowa City.
“Before the shuttle, I didn’t go down (to the Iowa City VA) very often,” Dempster said. “I missed appointments I should have been going to.”
Dempster is not the only veteran who struggles to make the drive for medical services, said Ron Devoll, chief of voluntary services for the Iowa City VA. Some don’t have any relatives or friends who can transport them, and others simply lack the resources to afford frequent trips.
Vehicles are donated from Disabled American Veterans, a national nonprofit that provides services and support to veterans and their families.
Riders must be ambulatory — or able to walk on their own — to use this service. If they are not, the health system has four vans driven by staff members through the Veterans Transportation Service. In February, that service conducted about 140 trips.
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The program costs about $17,000 a month between gas, vehicle maintenance and other costs to maintain the program, Devoll said. However, the cost is completely covered through donations, including some aid from Disabled American Veterans, he said.
Rodriguez said the program is in need of more volunteer drivers. The more drivers they have, she said, they more veterans they are able to help.
“We do want any need that a veteran might have, we want to make sure we get them the help they need,” Rodriguez said.
For those interested in volunteering for the program, they are encouraged to contact Rodriguez at (319) 338-0581 Ext. 6281.
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