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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Gluesenkamp Perez introduces bill to expand free transportation to rural veterans seeking health care

Measure would include more counties in Southwest Washington

By Dylan Jefferies, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 6, 2024, 6:02am

A program in Skamania County that provides rural veterans with free transportation to Veterans Affairs health facilities lost its funding recently, meaning veterans will need to pay for their own transportation to access critical care that can be difficult to find in rural communities.

A new bill introduced last week by Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, aims to rectify that. If passed, it would restore funding to the Skamania County program and expand the program to Clark County and other counties in Southwest Washington.

The Rural Veterans Transportation to Care Act would expand eligibility for the VA’s Highly Rural Transportation Grant Program, which provides grant funding for veteran service organizations and state veterans service agencies to provide transportation at no cost to veterans, according to a news release.

Perez introduced the bill with Reps. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., and Gabe Vasquez, D-N.M.

“As veterans across Southwest Washington face dramatic reductions in life-saving services, I’m working to make sure they aren’t left behind,” Perez said in the news release. “This bipartisan bill won’t only restore critical health care transportation services for Skamania County veterans, but it will also newly expand eligibility across Southwest Washington.”

The program is currently only available to counties with fewer than seven people per square mile, meaning only 13 states have counties that are eligible.

Skamania County recently lost its eligibility, exceeding the qualification threshold at 7.15 people per square mile.

Veterans in Skamania County have used the service since 2014. Skamania County Senior Services, which provided transportation through the program, made about 300 trips in 2022, transporting between 40 and 60 veterans to critical care that can be difficult to access in rural communities, according to the news release.

The bill would expand the definition of “highly rural” to include more counties. As a result, Skamania County would again become eligible, and Clark, Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Pacific, Lewis and Thurston counties would become newly eligible.

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Lori Pugh, president of the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, said she has not reviewed the bill and that Perez has not contacted the center.

The bill would add tribal organizations as eligible recipients for the program and increase the maximum funding amount from $50,000 to $60,000, or up to $80,000 for grantees to purchase an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant vehicle.

After Skamania County lost eligibility for the program, Perez sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough in October urging the VA to fill transportation gaps for rural veterans and work with Congress to redefine the term “highly rural.” In a reply earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs expressed support for the bill, according to the news release.

A representative from Skamania County Veteran Services declined to comment when asked about the bill.

According to Perez’s letter, community leaders in Skamania County were only given a week’s notice that funds for the program would be revoked, giving them little time to find alternatives.

“I believe there should be systems in place at the VA for communicating these eligibility changes or helping counties like Skamania find resources to fill in for this loss of funding in the short term,” Perez wrote. “Moving forward, Congress and the VA should work to update this outdated definition of highly rural.”

Perez has introduced multiple bills that assist veterans.

She co-led the Veteran Medical Exams for Distant Areas Act that supports veterans’ access to VA-certified specialists and examiners in rural communities, which was signed into law as part of a larger Senate package in October 2023. She also co-introduced the Helping Heroes Act, which would increase veteran families’ access to mental health care, peer support and other resources.

Earlier this month, Perez sent a letter to McDonough urging the agency to reopen a VA clinic in Lewis County, after the Chehalis clinic was closed in 2021. She has recovered more than $78,000 for constituents owed to them by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the news release.

Nearly 1 in 4 veterans in Washington live in rural areas, and there are roughly 2.7 million veterans in rural areas across the country who are enrolled in the VA’s health care system.