Disabled veterans denounce unequal transportation services
Disabled New Jersey veterans told Assembly lawmakers on Wednesday they faced a complex web of disconnected transportation services when trying to get to Veterans Affairs hospitals.
At a hearing before the Assembly’s Military Affairs and Veterans Affairs Committee, former servicemen told stories of late and missing rides, unreturned calls and long waits that forced some to give up to medical treatment.
Although New Jersey has a state-level program to help veterans reach VA hospitals, funding cuts mean ex-servicemen — especially those with disabilities — face a patchwork of services. uneven conditions that can force them to miss medical procedures or leave them waiting hours for a ride to or from a hospital.
“We have veterans who cannot go to the hospital for treatment. We have veterans going to the hospital and then not being able to go home,” said Bill Graves, president of the New Jersey regional group of the Blind Veterans Association. “We had a vet two days ago who lived in Newark, was dropped off by Access Link, and two hours later he was still standing outside East Orange VA Hospital trying to get home.”
The state program, which operates in partnership with each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, has faced similar complaints about availability for years, said Joseph Nyzio of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Service details vary by county, and veterans wishing to use the service should arrange transportation with their county’s Veterans Service Officer.
The system lacks enough buses to meet demand, he said, and funding for the program has not kept up with growing use as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lured more ex-servicemen into the VA hospital system.
Funding for veteran transportation services has largely stagnated over the past two decades. The $335,000 appropriated for services in the current fiscal year is slightly more than the $300,000 appropriated in the 1999 budget. Yet, accounting for inflation, the 1999 vote is worth just over $506,000 today.
“We probably haven’t built the program enough in the last 20 years or however long the program has been, but there is a real program out there,” Nyzio said. “It has its shortcomings and problems, like any program.”
Prior to the pandemic, some veterans had reached a difficult balance with transportation providers allowing them to travel to hospitals, but this is no longer the case 23 months into the pandemic. Service has not been fully restored even though the number of cases has dropped and some veterans cannot reach the hospital staff they are used to talking to, said John O’Connell, a veteran who became blind. during his military service.
“We solved the problem, and now I have to reinvent the wheel in the post-COVID world,” he said. “And for some reason, everyone I worked with is gone.”
Veterans who testified before the Assembly panel suggested the state expand Access Link, a paratransit system that serves residents with disabilities, to more areas of the state, noting that its service is uneven in locations away from NJ Transit bus or train stations.
They also suggested that the state connect its transportation services with those provided by counties and volunteers through a central system that would allow currently unconnected systems to communicate with each other. They said it would allow veterans to call one number for a ride instead of going to multiple services that often leave them waiting for a call that never comes.
“We have every transportation program under the sun, but none of them work together,” said former state senator Bob Andrzejczak, who lost a leg in a wartime explosion. in Iraq. “None of them really work collaboratively, and a lot of it is grassroots volunteering.”
These volunteer services are limited by budget constraints that force them to fundraise for gasoline and vehicle maintenance, Andrzejczak said.
“I just think it’s shameful,” he said. “For a minimal cost, we could provide better service to all of our veterans.”
Andrzejczak said some of those gaps could be closed with as little as $1 million in public funding, a tiny slice of New Jersey’s annual budget, which grew to $46.4 billion in the fiscal year in Classes. Some lawmakers want Gov. Phil Murphy to include the suggested additional funding in his March 8 budget speech.
“I am disappointed to learn of the funding cut that has been made to the transportation program,” said MP Herb Conaway. “I hope that when the budget cycle restarts we will be able to resolve this issue, and as we do, that we are really looking to find a new way to provide a very valuable service to those who, as has been mentioned, have won the help and support they receive from our state.
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