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Veterans outraged over loss of transportation service

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Veterans outraged over loss of transportation service

By Darcy Spears. CREATED Mar 17, 2014

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- It's something most of us take for granted. The ability to drive ourselves to the doctor when we need to go.

But many veterans count on the VA for that, and they've told Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears their best option is about to be derailed.

From World War II to Vietnam, veterans who who are elderly, can't walk, can't see count on Scott McAtee and Jerry Welch to be their eyes, ears and wheels between home and doctor appointments at VA clinics across the valley and the VA hospital in North Las Vegas.

Roger Echols, Jr., a veteran who's completely blind, said, "It's kinda hard to find somebody that's gonna come to your door, help you onto a van, strap you in, care for you while you're there, make sure you get to your appointment, walk you to the door of the doctor if necessary and make sure that you get back home."

Veterans we've spoken to all across the valley said Scott and Jerry do all that and more.

"It means a tremendous amount," said Larry Mangels, a 1969-1971 combat engineer and demolition specialist who's going blind from diabetes, suffers from peripheral neuropathy, senility, and may lose his left foot to amputation

"They don't just drive. They care," added Frank Black, a Vietnam-era Marine who has cellulitis from shrapnel in his leg and can barely walk.

McAtee and Welch run the Veterans Transport Service. It's door-to-door, bed-to-bed if necessary. And it's funded by the VA.

Says McAtee, "I know for a fact that there are thousands of others out there that need this service.  Need help to get the care that the VA promised them."

It's a service so special it moves former Marine Frank Black to tears.

"I'll tell you what. They can be in my foxhole with me any time."

Both McAtee and Welch are trained in emergency management services. Jerry is a certified paramedic.

Darcy: And you've been working for quite a number of years, helping these veterans?
Scott: Yes.  It'll be 17 years in June.

But recently they were told to turn in their van and keys to the VA on March 28 because their contract is up and won't be renewed.

"They're finding ways to save money and it's to save money off the backs of us veterans, and that's wrong!" declared Bob Berry, a 93-year-old retired master sergeant who fought in WWII, Korea and the Cold War.

Scott and Jerry said the VA has been chipping away at their service since last summer when their vehicle, equipped with a gurney, oxygen tanks and other basic life support equipment was deactivated.

After that, they say the service was further cut as they were no longer allowed to transport veterans to homeless shelters or contracted rehab and nursing care facilities.

Other services available to veterans come with a cost.

"Why do they want to take something that doesn't cost us?" asked Frank Black. "Haven't we given enough?"

Paratransit is available, but it's not usually door-to-door.

"Rather than, say, a half hour to get there, we're talking about three hours to get there," said Larry Mangels.

And another car service run by volunteers only operates in the morning. As a result, Roger Echols said he's been left stranded at the hospital more than once, and had to be rescued by Scott and Jerry.

"They deserve to keep their jobs. We deserve to keep our service. And whoever is the one that's cutting this deserve to come down here and see it from our eyes," said Echols.

So why is the VA putting the brakes on a service that means so much to veterans?

Bob Berry's been trying to get answers from the VA and lawmakers for months, but said, "Nobody's got guts enough to stand up and say the buck stops with me." 

We've got the guts, Bob. Contact 13 traveled all across the valley to hear veterans' concerns and bring them to the VA for answers.

The answer we got came in a written statement. The VA said they're working to activate more services using existing resources.

"As a result, contracts currently in place for transportation will no longer be needed." 

They claim that will save taxpayers about $700,000 a year.

But veterans believe the service they've been using up to now is priceless and simply cannot be replaced.

Bob Berry puts it simply.  "We need more service, not less."

The VA also said, "During the transition from contract to VA-provided transportation, services will continue uninterrupted." 

They've invited us to hold them accountable on that promise, and you can bet we will.

We've reached out to federal lawmakers to see what they've learned about this situation.

Sen. Heller's office responded to say, "Ease in transportation to and from appointments is a critical piece of quality care for our veterans. In fact, Senator Heller has introduced legislation to make sure that states have the resources they need to help veterans in rural areas travel to much-needed appointment.

The Veterans Administration has assured Senator Heller that these services will continue uninterrupted. Senator Heller will be monitoring this situation carefully. Any veteran who encounters problems is encouraged to call his office at (702) 388-6605. Veterans may also want to consider availing themselves of transportation services provided by the Disabled American Veteran Organization."

From Rep. Dina Titus, "It is critical that Southern Nevada veteran have the transportation assistance they need to access health care and support services at the VA. Our office reached out to the VA on this issue and was assured that veterans utilizing this transportation service will not experience any disruption of services. If you, or a loved one, are a veteran and experience an issue with the VA Transport Service, please reach out to our office for help."

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.