Steamboat Springs Jim Stanko knows exactly how many miles there are between the Pilot gas station in Steamboat Springs and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction.
It’s a 201-mile drive he and many other veterans in Routt County have to make to receive medical care.
And with a recent uptick in the number of veterans who need help making the trip, Stanko said it may be time to take another look at the local veterans transportation system that largely has stayed static for the past 12 years.
“If you get more people enrolled in the VA and there are more people who just can’t go on their own, then I think we’re going to have to look at some way of getting some coordination going,” he said Thursday.
While Stanko, a Vietnam-era veteran who is heavily involved in veterans’ issues statewide, is able to use his own vehicle to make the occasional trip to the hospital, he said there are dozens of local veterans who rely on grant funding to get there.
“These are veterans who don’t have a vehicle that can get there or who can’t drive themselves,” Stanko said. “Most of them are going to get treatment for a service-related condition.”
Since 2002, grant funding from the Colorado Veterans Trust Fund has helped local veterans either get reimbursed for gas or rent a vehicle and a driver to make the trip.
Many of the trips are veteran-led.
Stanko said with an increase in the number of veterans who are enrolling in the VA health system locally, he expects this year that the local American Legion Post 44 will need more than $5,400 to help fund the trips.
The veteran speculated that a combination of more outreach from the VA and changes from the Affordable Care Act, which requires everyone to get health insurance, may be contributing to the increase in the number of veterans getting enrolled.
He added that in previous years, the demand for assistance to get to Grand Junction hasn’t been high enough to necessitate spending the full grant.
With more demand possible, the veterans here have raised their grant request to $6,000 for the next fiscal year.
It may seem like a small dollar amount, but Routt County Veterans Affairs Officer Michael Condie said it can make a huge difference for local veterans.
“If we didn’t help them out, some of these guys would be in huge trouble,” he said.
Transportation remains an important topic for local veterans who use a VA hospital that is more than 200 miles away.
When they get to Grand Junction, sometimes four hours after a van has made other stops in the region, they have access to a 53-bed facility that provides primary and secondary care, including acute medical, surgical and psychiatric inpatient services.
When the transportation plan for local veterans was implemented in 2002, local veterans were lobbying to get some of this level of medical care closer to home.
After the years of lobbying, local veterans were rewarded in 2007 with a Telehealth Clinic in Craig that has made it more convenient for some to receive care remotely from the VA.
The Telehealth Clinic is expanding its services, but Stanko said there still were about 66 veterans last year that needed help getting to the VA facilities, where far more types of services are available.
“I think that if we’re going to continue this kind of transportation service, we’re going to have to look at different kinds of funding,” Stanko said.
He also thinks more collaboration between counties is needed.
Ed Wilkenson handles transportation for vets residing in Moffat County, about 30 to 40 of whom need to visit the VA facilities in Grand Junction regularly. The van he uses for this service was purchased by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265, with maintenance and fuel covered by the county.
Wilkenson said he is more than happy to work with any veterans from outside Moffat County — and he often coordinates rides for those on their way to Grand Junction from Meeker and Baggs, Wyo. — but the additional mileage that would result in going from Craig to Steamboat or Hayden and back means anyone from Routt will first need to make their own way west on Highway 40 to meet up in Craig.
Though Moffat County vets have a shorter commute to Junction, that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Additionally, the benefit of having the Telehealth Clinic in Craig, which allows them to consult with VA medical personnel, doesn’t cover every health concern.
“They’re very limited in what they can do,” Wilkenson said.
Stanko said some efforts already are underway to help streamline veteran transportation in the region, including the upcoming launch of a new call center that will be based out of Summit County.
“There’s no reason why instead of us piddling around with $6,000 trying to get 66 veterans to Grand Junction and Denver, we couldn’t coordinate something better,” Stanko said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.