VA-funded transportation program clears major milestone in serving Oregon’s highly rural veterans

Oregon’s Highly Rural Transportation Program, a federal, state and local partnership that is helping meet the urgent transportation needs of veterans who live in extremely rural areas, has logged over 500,000 miles in its first two years of operation.

That’s farther than the distance to the moon and back.

Veterans who were served by this program did not fly to the moon, but they were transported all over the Pacific Northwest to see their doctors and receive medical care. Federally funded and administered by the state and its partner agencies in the 10 participating counties, the program is tailored to the needs of rural veterans, who often do not have adequate access to medical care in their communities.

Connie Guentert, Wallowa County manager for Community Connection of Northeast Oregon Inc., knows these challenges better than most. Community Connection is the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (ODVA’s) partner agency for the Highly Rural Transportation Program in both Wallowa and Baker counties, and Guentert and her dedicated staff grapple with the difficulty of serving highly rural veterans and other clients every day.

“We’re very remote out here,” she said. “We have very large land expanses, minimal medical facilities, and the only public transportation in the county is us. Our drivers face long winters, adverse weather and road conditions, rock slides, deer, elk, even bears on the road.”

The trips are rarely short. Because of the scarcity of services, Wallowa County veterans must travel to appointments in La Grande, Walla Walla, Boise, and even as far as Portland or Tacoma — a round trip of over 700 miles.

Funding comes in the form of annual grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A maximum of $50,000 may be awarded to any counties classified as “highly rural,” which means fewer than seven residents per square mile. Oregon has 10 such counties (Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Lake, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Wallowa and Wheeler), and since 2014, ODVA has received the maximum funding allotment for each participating county.

The impact has been remarkable. From October 2014 to September 2016, a total of 529,199 miles were logged — which accounts for about half of the nationwide total reported by Oregon and all the other states participating in the VA-funded program.

Oregon’s drivers also tracked over 9,000 trips, spent over 20,000 hours on the road and served 2,279 veterans during that same period.

Mitch Sparks, ODVA’s director of statewide veteran services, credits the program’s success to the ingenuity of the participating counties and transportation providers, who have used the funds to enhance new and existing programs in order to get the maximum value from each grant.

“This program’s success is directly due to the outstanding management of each county’s transportation system and their ability to creatively transport veterans by partnering with other transportation networks and overcoming weather, distance and other adverse circumstances,” Sparks said.

The program has made a real difference in reducing the strain on state and local safety net programs that would otherwise be responsible for bridging the gaps in serving vulnerable residents in highly rural areas.

Even so, the VA grants go only so far in meeting the high level of need that exists. Guentert said the grant funds last only about seven or eight months — not the full 12 for which they are intended. After that point, her organization has to begin to draw on other funds closer to home — like a biennial allotment they receive from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“We truly appreciate the VA grant, and the veterans love it,” Guentert said. “It’s just that the need is so great.”

If you are a veteran living in one of the 10 participating counties and would like more information about the Highly Rural Transportation Program, please contact your local county or transportation office. A complete lis t of the appropriate contacts can be found on ODVA’s website at http://wp.me/p60SnD-Nf.