Vietnam veteran and Veterans Affairs Department volunteer Durward Forbes of Alamogordo, N.M., discusses the challenges of transporting veterans hundreds of miles from Otero County to medical appointments in Albuquerque. With one quarter of the nation's 22 million veterans living in rural areas, transportation adds another dimension to the health care problems faced by the Veterans Affairs Department, which has come under fire for secret waiting lists, delayed care and mismanagement. (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP)
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For millions of veterans living in rural America, the challenges of accessing an overburdened and scandal-plagued health care system go beyond having to wait months to land an appointment.
Transportation adds another dimension to the problems they face.
Hundreds of miles often lie between doctor’s offices and veterans in small towns from Oregon to Pennsylvania. For anything worse than a common cold, local clinics are often helpless, and it can take hours behind the wheel for vets to get adequate care. It’s worse for those who can’t drive themselves.
Lawmakers in some states have been talking about how to best fill the gaps, and the Veterans Affairs Department has been working to expand transportation options throughout its system, but New Mexico — one of the largest and most rural states — has yet to make the list.
Many veterans who call southern New Mexico’s remote stretches of desert home or those scattered across the northern mountains depend on volunteers to drive them. Last year alone, volunteers spent nearly 26,000 hours driving some 917,000 miles to ensure patients made it to medical appointments in Albuquerque.
In Wyoming, volunteers with Disabled American Veterans drove more than a half-million miles. Nationally, the organization covered about 30 million miles in 2013.
“Oh my gosh, it would have been a mess if we didn’t have this driver,” said Jean Gorn, who made the four-hour trip from Alamogordo to Albuquerque recently with her husband, 83-year-old Army veteran Jens Gorn.
This marked the third time the Gorns have had to travel to the VA medical center in Albuquerque. The clinic near their home handles only basic needs.
It was no different when the couple lived in Nebraska. They were four hours from the medical center in Omaha, and the local clinic could do nothing last August when Jens Gorn started feeling numbness in his leg and ended up having a stroke. He had to be hospitalized outside the VA network, resulting in a week of bills not covered by his insurance.
“The VA, it’s just what you hear on the TV,” Jean Gorn said.
Allegations of secret waiting lists at VA centers across the country, whistle-blower complaints regarding rigged scheduling practices, patient deaths and complaints from veterans about delayed and uncompassionate care have prompted national uproar.
“It’s horrible that it had to come to this, but we’re going to take this as an opportunity to make care better,” said Tim Hale, head of New Mexico’s state veterans services agency.
Among the priorities, he said, is improving care for rural veterans. He said the VA doesn’t have any mobile medical vans in New Mexico, but some eastern states have two or three.
About one quarter of the nation’s 22 million veterans live in rural areas and a majority are enrolled in the VA health care system.
The agency created an office of rural health in 2007 to boost telemedicine opportunities and expand primary care programs in rural areas. It also began offering grants last year to help with transportation in highly rural areas. However, only 25 states have counties that qualify for the grants and less than half of the counties in New Mexico are eligible.
No counties in Pennsylvania are eligible, despite a 2012 legislative study that found much work needed to be done to meet rural veterans’ needs.
Oregon was among the states that applied for grants. Analysts there told state lawmakers the only organized transportation to a VA medical center from many rural counties was the DAV van system or other volunteers.
“The need for reliable transportation is compounded due to limitations on the number and frequency of medical appointments that can be accommodated within the VA medical system,” the analysts said. “When veterans are able to obtain an appointment, it is imperative that they attend the appointment, and be on time.”
That’s where Joe Price and Durward Forbes come in. The Vietnam veterans are among a team of DAV volunteers from southern New Mexico who shuttle patients to Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas.
Their trips often begin before sunrise and end after dark. They’ve been stuck in traffic, forded snow drifts and dodged rabbits along dirt roads in an effort to find a veteran’s home.
Without transportation, the veterans wouldn’t get treatment, Price said.
“A lot of them aren’t really in the shape to even ride that distance, but they don’t really have any choice,” he said. “It’s hard on some of them. It can be very hard.”