Opinion Columns & Blogs

Put your money where your sticker is

This question is for all of you folks who are driving around with stickers on trunks or bumpers urging us to “Support Our Troops”: Is that a symbolic sentiment, or do you really mean it?

The question is posed in light of the Veterans’ Express Shuttle shutting down June 30 if it doesn’t get $26,000 to keep running.

Overseen by Ride-On Transportation, the shuttle picks up county veterans at their homes and transports them to Santa Maria, where they connect with another shuttle to either Santa Barbara or Los Angeles Veterans Administration hospitals. The Express gave 532 veteran rides last year.

The program, born in August 2007, has had a bumpy ride during its short tenure. Without a designated budget, the program has been subsidized by Ride-On and local fundraising efforts.

Toward that end, Greg Shearer almost single-handedly raised enough money to see the program through its first couple of years, with Ride-On now shouldering full costs.

But as a quasi-governmental organization that receives a measure of state gas taxes to operate, Ride-On has had its budget whacked by $100,000 due to reduced sales taxes going to the state during the Great Recession.

Simply put, “Ride-On cannot continue to fund this important service at a time when our funding is being cut,” said Mark Shaffer, executive director of Ride-On. “We’re working with legislators and the Veterans’ Administration to find a stable funding source to cover at least 75 percent of the cost of operating the Veterans’ Express.

“What good is it to have (VA hospital) services outside the county if we can’t get them there?” he wondered.

Good question.

Another question whose answer seems to be smothered under bureaucracy: If Santa Barbara County has free veteran transportation to Los Angeles, why doesn’t San Luis Obispo County?

“Santa Maria is a larger clinic with specialists and dental care. The San Luis Obispo clinic offers only basic primary care and is consequently not eligible for the free transportation,” according to Ashley Schapitl, Rep. Lois Capps’ press secretary.

Oh, that explains it.

Another question: If a family member drives a veteran to the Los Angeles VA Hospital and is reimbursed for mileage, why isn’t Ride-On given reimbursement?

Schapitl acknowledged the conundrum and offered a glimpse into the arcane machinations of Veterans Affairs funding.

During the VA budget authorization process, money can be requested for a specific project if there is a program involved. Apparently there is no program for nonprofits such as Ride-On to provide shuttle service. It’s OK, though, for volunteers to shuttle vets and then ask for reimbursement.

In spite of that Catch-22, “The congresswoman has worked hard to help find VA funding for the Vets Express program and is continuing her efforts,” Schapitl said. “She’s going to keep working on this problem.”

I would hope so. Capps, as a nurse in civilian life, is one of the few health professionals sitting on the Hill. As such, her empathy for our sick and disabled veterans should be off the charts in outrage to get this problem resolved.

And Rep. Kevin McCarthy?

“The congressman’s office has contacted the Veterans Administration to inquire if there are any funding sources beyond those transportation benefits already available through the Veterans Administration to eligible veterans,” said Brian Klotz, McCarthy’s press secretary.

“Congressman McCarthy is grateful for the service and sacrifice our veterans have provided for our country in protecting our freedom.”

Well, that certainly settles it then. We can expect absolutely zero to happen from either side of the aisle, Republican or Democrat. But, boy oh boy, thanks a lot for all you’ve done for us, men and women in uniform.

Which brings me to the final question: If we ask our young men and women to go into combat, risking their physical and mental health on our behalf — if not their lives — don’t we owe these people the best possible care with the least amount of hassle in giving them the help they desperately need?

If you really support our troops beyond the comfort of bumper-sticker philosophizing, contact Mark Shaffer at 541-8751 and ask how you can help.

Or contact Capps and McCarthy directly and demand they jointly craft corrective legislation to remedy the situation, rather than giving lip service about making procedural inquiries.

Rep. Lois Capps

Washington, D.C.

1110 Longworth House Office Building

Washington D.C. 20515

Phone: (202) 225-3601

Fax: (202) 225-5632

Rep. Kevin McCarthy

1523 Longworth Building

Washington, DC 20515

Phone: (202) 225-2915

Fax: (202) 225-2908

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.