By Audrey Love

Veterans in Union County may breathe easier knowing that they can get a free ride to and from their medical visits, thanks to a grant allotted to Union County Public Transit by the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs.

Veteran Rides to Wellness, launched June 1, is a subcategory of UCPT’s Rides to Wellness program. Rides to Wellness was established in 2014 to provide medical-related transportation on an on-demand basis to those who need it. The program aims to provide improved access to primary and urgent care, resulting in fewer missed appointments.

Expanding the program to include veterans “is going to have a big impact,” said Union County Public Transit Manager Angelic Peters.

While those who use Rides to Wellness pay a nominal fee, with the implementation of the veteran’s program, eligible veterans will be able to utilize the service for free, until the end of the grant’s coverage in September 2020.

Prior to the beginning of the expansion, Peters estimated at least 1,750 rides would be given to vets in the duration of the grant, but based on the number of rides that have already been provided, she now projects much higher numbers.

“We’ve just launched it last month and we’ve had about eight vets use it so far, for a total of 60 rides,” said Peters, “and it will continue to grow.”

The original Rides to Wellness program itself currently provides around 5,000 rides per year, as well as scheduled rides to the VA clinic in Walla Walla on Mondays.

“Some people use it regularly. We have dialysis people who have to go to their appointments three times a week, and without the Rides to Wellness program I’m not sure how they would get to their appointments, to be honest,” Peters said. “A lot of them don’t have cars, and some of the appointments would just be something that you can’t drive yourself (to). Also, we take people to appointments where they have to be sedated, so they couldn’t safely drive back afterward.”

Peters estimates there are currently around 2,500 veterans in Union County (9.7 percent of the population) and around 10 percent of those veterans don’t have a source of reliable transportation.

“I think it’s going to have a big impact. We’ve had veterans that have been hitchhiking to medical appointments and just not going to medical appointments because we haven’t had veterans’ transportation like they have in other counties since 2012,” said Peters.

She noted that veterans who already use Rides to Wellness will now be able to ride free of charge. For example, one of her “dialysis people” is a vet, she said, “so he’s been paying to go to all of these dialysis trips, and now he doesn’t have to pay anymore, which is going to be a lot better for his income.”

In order to qualify for Veteran Rides to Wellness, veterans must provide documentation, a military ID or DD214. If a veteran doesn’t have documentation, UCPT will work with the individual to acquire the proper paperwork. Candidates who are eligible for the VA Mileage Reimbursement program may not use Rides to Wellness for free, unless they do not have a working vehicle or a vehicle that can accommodate their mobility device, are not able to legally drive or have a doctor’s note indicating it would be unsafe to drive following a procedure.

Trips are provided on an origin-to-destination basis, whether that mean door-to-door or curb-to-curb, based on the needs of the individual. Assistance to and from the vehicle and into the clinic is also part of the service. Rides to Wellness provides a number of passenger accessibility options, including sedans, ADA accessible minivans and a stretcher car.

Although veterans can already ride for free upon showing veteran identification on the transit’s fixed route in La Grande, the Veteran Rides to Wellness program specifically provides medical transportation within the county and beyond. There are currently no location restrictions within the program.

The Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs grant is awarded based on need and level of priority, in which UCPT’s position was ranked among the highest. Union County is splitting the $50,000 grant with Baker County, which applied for the grant alongside UCPT.

For more information about the program or to arrange an appointment, visit the Northeast Oregon Public Transit office at 2204 East Penn Ave. in La Grande or call 541-963-2877 between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Reservations can be made up to 14 days in advance. Eligibility information can also be found at www.neotransit.org/veteran-rides-to-wellness.

Contact Audrey Love at 541-963-3161 or email alove@lagrandeobserver.com .

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