TRENTON — Transportation is the biggest challenge facing New Jersey veterans, in some cases preventing disabled veterans from needed medical care, lawmakers said in an online hearing Wednesday.
The state Department of Military Affairs and Veterans Affairs is working cooperatively with all 21 counties to provide transportation options, but veterans’ groups told the Legislature it was a an inadequate system that often prevents people from getting to and from medical appointments unless they arrange a trip four weeks in advance. .
Bill Graves, regional group president of the Blinded Veterans Association New Jersey, said Lyons VA Medical Center in Bernards Township has a good vision care program — but many veterans just can’t get enough of it. go there to benefit from it.
“So people can’t even get their eyes examined, tested, or treated,” Graves said. “It’s a major, major problem.”
Toms River resident John O’Connell said that despite living in the most densely populated state in the country and in his case living in the municipality with the most veterans in the state, county-run programs and volunteer group options are inadequate even for a trip to a clinic in The Brick.
He said the federal government has a rural transportation grant program that might be helpful, but it’s not available to New Jersey residents.
“If I was a veteran in the middle of Montana or Kansas, I would actually have an easier time, it would be easier for me to get to VA medical appointments,” O’Connell said.
Mustafa Shabazz, vice president of the Blind Veterans Association of New Jersey regional group, said in the late 1990s there was funding for veterans associations to provide transport to hospitals. and medical centers, but was phased out about 20 years ago.
This forces these groups of volunteers to raise funds to buy their vehicles and gasoline, which they can sometimes only operate sporadically because the drivers are not paid.
“I just think it’s shameful,” said Bob Andrzejczak, a disabled veteran and former state legislator. “For a minimal cost, we can provide better service to our veterans.”
Johnnie Walker, adjutant for the New Jersey Department of Disabled American Veterans, said the DAV operates three vans from Cape May County that transport veterans to out-of-state VA appointments.
He said a van with six veterans left around 6 a.m., dropped half off in Philadelphia for their medical appointments, then took the others to Wilmington, Delaware, for cancer treatment. When it’s done, they fly the three back to Philadelphia, pick up the first group, and return home at 7 p.m.
“And anyone who’s ever had chemo or radiation can understand that they don’t want to be in a van for eight or nine hours. They want to be home in bed,” Walker said. “The transportation system with the VA is in a terrible, terrible state. We know it.
Joseph Nyzio, chief of the Office of Veterans Benefits at the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the state partners in veteran transportation programs with all 21 counties, but admits they lack money and vehicles.
“Is this a perfect program? Absolutely not,” Nyzio told the Assembly’s Military Affairs and Veterans Affairs Committee. “And all of these shortcomings, all of the testimonies that you’re hearing today, we’ve been hearing for years.”
Nyzio said the federal VA has been pushing for years for veterans to be cared for at VA hospitals — which increases the demand for transportation.
“We probably haven’t developed the program enough in the last 20 years or however long the program has been,” he said. “But there is a real program. It has its shortcomings and problems, like any program out there.
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