Drivers raise concerns over future of transportation program for Veterans

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CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WDTV) - James Hupp proudly served his country in the Air Force. Now - he's legally blind and relies on his fellow veterans to get him to his doctors appointments.

Hupp is one of the thousands of veterans who utilize a program that provides free transportation to hospitals for disabled vets.

"I wouldn't be able to make half the appointments I'm making (without the program)," Hupp said.

But the drivers in that program, who take patients to the Clarksburg VA, have questions about its future.

They're considered volunteers by the Federal Government. But they've received a daily stipend from the state's Department of Veterans Assistance that at one time was $75 a day - allocated in the department's budget - to drive veterans to their appointments, many of them putting in 12-14 hour days, leaving their homes as early as 2 a.m.

For now, the checks have stopped coming.

Drivers use a mix of vans owned by the federal VA and others purchased by the state - both for the same purpose.

But drivers say they've been told only those who drive state vans will get paid for their work, citing liability insurance payment issues from the state.

Not all drivers take the stipend. But others like Richard Page, a Navy vet who drives from Upshur and Lewis County, says that without some compensation, he - like many other drivers - can't afford to give up multiple days a week to the program.

"My heart bleeds for them because they can't get here and we're going to lose them," Page said. "They're going to start missing their appointments and they're going to die."

"We really just don't know what's going on," said Robert Yoak, who has been driving for 16 years.

That was Sunday when Yoak and other drivers sat down with 5 News to discuss their frustrations with the state. Since then, some compromises have been made.

Drivers will now split the routes they drive with other drivers between state and federal vans. That way, some of them will still get a little compensation, and vets can still make it to their appointments.

Employees at the Clarksburg VA have volunteered to help drive as well.

Still, the the Clarksburg VA is in need of more vans to effectively manage their region of North-Central West Virginia.

Even with a lack of payment and resources, Howard Brooks, the former coordinator of the Clarksburg program, says drivers will make it work, no matter what obstacles they're presented with.

"Most of the drivers are veterans themselves," Brooks said. "They know the impact that it has on these veterans to be picking them up and driving them."

We reached out to the State Department of Veterans Assistance and have not heard back.