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Volunteer driver shortage impacting rural patients

driver shortage
Posted at 11:06 AM, Nov 11, 2022

CLARKSBURG, West Virginia — In his bright green car, Bob Yoak is ready for anything.

"We have an emergency kit, jumper cables," he tells me as he lists off his supplies.

He’s prepared for it all because when he drives where he does and who he does it for, he knows his mission is just too important.

"If it wasn't for these vans and, and a few drivers like myself, a lot of 'em wouldn't have any way to get here," he said.

Yoak is one of the many volunteer drivers across America who take patients through hundreds of miles of winding country roads to medical services. He’s been doing it for more than two decades.

Specifically, he shuttles veterans in West Virginia to the VA hospital in Clarksburg. This kind of work is not only a kind gesture, but a necessary service for seniors, vets or not, nationwide who otherwise don’t have any physical access to health care.

Barbara Brown is the maestro behind the scenes at Clarksburg VA hospital, connecting her team of drivers like Yoak to patients needing a ride, sometimes several hours away.

"Some of the rural folks, uh, they may not be able to afford a vehicle, especially at this time," she said.

Her job, however, is becoming increasingly harder to do.

"They're just far and few between getting them. It's like pulling teeth," she said.

National rural health advocates say the long distances folks in these areas have to travel for healthcare, the funding hurdles rural hospitals are going through, and the low numbers of volunteers to drive patients interrupt the speed in which they receive care.

If volunteers can’t fit the need, ambulances usually pick up the slack, which can impede response times in case of emergencies.

"Emergency services are already stressed in rural areas, and we're seeing a number of volunteer services and other ambulance operations having to cease their operations," said Brock Slabach, COO of the Rural Hospital Association.

The fleet of green cars Clarksburg uses are courtesy of the Disabled American Veterans Charity, so folks like Yoak don’t have to rely on their own cash and car to do the work. That’s not the case for every volunteer, however.

The federal government reimburses volunteers 14 cents per gallon, but that charitable rate hasn’t been raised by Congress since 1997.

Another issue: the volunteer workforce, which relies heavily on retirees, is aging out.

"I do it now, but some days someone's gonna have to take me," said Yoak.

Yoak may not be planning on stopping soon but he knows he will one day, and he hopes that more people choose to get behind the wheel, helping rural neighbors in need, because just like it has for him, it might just turn from a kind deed to a calling.

"You really get attached to 'em over the years. It's really rewarding," he said.