Congressman Steve Pearce visits with a constituent dur[auth] ing a meet and greet at Roswell Livestock & Farm Supply, Saturday. (Mark Wilson Photo)
Members of the local Vietnam Veterans of America pressed Congressman Steve Pearce, R-NM, on veteran transportation issues Saturday afternoon during a meet and greet at Roswell Livestock and Farm Supply.
The event was supposed to be, in part, a chance for the representative to tout new legislation he introduced on Wednesday that allows veterans to receive health care in their hometowns, rather than at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility hours away.
But two veterans wanted to know why the DVA doesnâ€™t just provide free transportation for the 5,564 veterans living in Chaves County to neighboring VA hospitals in Albuquerque, Artesia and Amarillo, among others.
â€œThe DVA provides free transportation to hospitals to every part of the state except southeastern New Mexico,â€ John Adams, president of Southeast New Mexico Chapter 968 of the VVA and a 100 percent disabled veteran, said.
Mark Craddock, also a disabled veteran involved with Chapter 986, told the congressman that the VVA may no longer be able to afford providing free transportation because fundraising for the operation has gone â€œdownhill.â€
The local chapter began providing free transportation services in 2005 with only $35, and using their own vans. According to a recent newsletter, gasoline costs average about $4,000 a month. The nonprofit operation relies primarily on private donations and government grants for funding.
Craddock complained that there has a been a decrease in demand for their transportation services because veterans are not allowed to collect travel pay from the government while they are receiving free transportation from their own organization.
â€œNow itâ€™s less than 30 (veterans per month),â€ Craddock told Pearce, â€œbecause theyâ€™re making the vets give up their travel pay. … The people who are running it now are saying you canâ€™t (claim) travel pay if you ride with us. But youâ€™re not getting any money from the VA or anybody else, as far as I know.â€
Craddock added that they used to transport an average of 132 veterans per month, but now they drive â€œmaybe one vet a day.â€ Pearce sympathized with the situation and agreed that â€œsomethingâ€™s wrong with that.â€ His staff indicated it would follow up at a later date. The VA has reimbursed 41.5 cents per mile for veteran travel since November 2008, pursuant to Title 38 United States Code 111 and 38 Code of Federal Regulations 70.1â€“70.50.
Local veteran Frank Ramirez, who founded the free transportation program for Chapter 986 in 2005, previously told the Daily Record that veterans who collect their reimbursement while receiving a free ride to the hospital are â€œdouble dippersâ€ who are stealing.
â€œThey get a free ride and $135,â€ Ramirez said in a December interview. â€œI think thatâ€™s wrong. … We gave them a free ride, it didn’t cost them nothing.â€