But it is even more challenging for many of our veterans, who are often older and more likely to be disabled and in need of medical care.
Nationally about 25 percent of veterans live in rural areas, and many have to travel great distances to a Veterans Administration medical center. A recent report by Stateline News Service gave the example of a 55-year-old Texas vet with stage four liver and colon cancer, who drives 85 miles one way for chemotherapy. Unfortunately, a government-sponsored transportation service that carried him by van to his appointments has now been discontinued.
For our region, the numbers are even more daunting. Ohio is close to the national average, with about 24 percent of veterans living in rural areas, but that still amounts to more than 200,000 people. In Kentucky, 40 percent of the Commonwealth’s 297,312 veterans live in rural areas, and in West Virginia 50 percent of the 150,021 veterans do.
The Mountain State has four major VA medical centers, located in Huntington, Beckley, Clarksburg and Martinsburg. So, the travel and transportation issue can be quite a challenge for veterans here, too. While the state also has more than a dozen outpatient clinics, there is a limit to the care and services those facilities provide.
Congress needs to make sure that transportation assistance is available and dependable. But other new approaches are needed as well, including helping vets get care outside of the VA system and closer to home. The “Choice” program was piloted a few years ago, and allows non-VA clinicians to serve rural veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility and receive reimbursement from the VA.
But some have criticized the program as inefficient and wasteful, so keeping the funding going has not been easy.
U.S. House members reached a deal in late July to avoid the shutdown of the program, which was set to run out of money by mid-August. The legislation would provide $2.1 billion for Choice over six months, and the bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it.
But that is still not the reliable long-term solution rural veterans deserve.
These men and women served our nation in some of our nation’s most difficult times – and in our region more than 20 percent have a service-connected disability. We need to do the right thing and make sure they get the health care they need as close to home as possible.