- Date: 07/30/2023
Veterans can now participate in VA Uber Health Connect – an initiative that provides supplemental transportation to eligible veterans needing…
Studies have found that access to reliable transportation is one of the biggest factors when it comes to escaping from poverty.
Since U.S. military veterans are more likely than the general population to experience poverty, and especially homelessness, it’s critical for this population to receive access to the transportation services needed to drive their upward economic mobility.
To meet the needs of unsheltered veterans and those at risk of homelessness, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has launched a nationwide rideshare program to streamline vulnerable veterans’ access to critically needed services. While the VA has been working to support homeless veterans for some time—including a new initiative to house 38,000 unsheltered veterans in 2022—the rideshare program is an innovative approach that seeks to better connect veterans with the employment, food, housing, and healthcare resources needed to improve their lives.
The idea for the VA rideshare program originated in 2017 with Charles Franklin, an Army veteran working at the time as a community employment coordinator within the homeless program for the VA Boston Healthcare System. As rising housing costs forced many of the veterans he worked with to move outside of urban centers to regions with less reliable public transportation, Franklin found it increasingly difficult to help them access competitive employment opportunities.
Looking for a mobility option that could provide veterans with a hand up while also maintaining their independence, Franklin worked with several groups, including the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Innovators Network and the New England Center for Innovation Excellence (NECIE), to help develop a rideshare program that could help at-risk veterans better access employment and housing opportunities.
The initiative first began as a small pilot in Boston designed to help a small group of veterans with new jobs receive transportation to and from work. The pilot paid ridesharing providers like Uber to transport the recently employed veterans for a set period of time until they had enough money saved up to provide for their own transit needs.
“We started with 10 veterans and helped them obtain full-time competitive employment, and then provided them with ride-sharing transportation to and from their jobs for four weeks until they got their first or second paychecks,” Franklin said. “So we helped them save on transportation costs, and I’d work with them on a sustainable plan to help them maintain their employment. And all 10 veterans who participated maintained their employment, with one of them even purchasing his own vehicle.”
After the success of the initial pilot, Franklin was able to receive a $25,000 grant from the VA to expand out the pilot to two sites across the VA’s network. The results of the follow-up pilot were similarly encouraging, with 84 veterans able to obtain and maintain full-time jobs that had higher hourly wages than other veterans who lacked similar transportation support.
Aware of the fact that limited transportation services can have far-reaching consequences, from food insecurity to accessing healthcare, Franklin looked at ways of expanding out the program even further to better support homeless veterans.
“There were a lot of issues that veterans within the VHA Homeless Program needed support with, and transportation was a huge barrier,” Franklin said. “It was delaying the housing process and delaying the employment process. Not having access to transportation also meant some veterans within the homeless program were going without medical care or all of the care they needed.”
After receiving another grant for $100,000 to work on piloting the program across the VHA Homeless Program, Franklin worked on expanding out the rideshare to cover other critical services such as access to housing, food, and employment resources at selected sites across the country. But these efforts were upended by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and Franklin worked to quickly pivot the program so that it could support a larger number of at-risk veterans. Working largely in collaboration with the Salvation Army, Franklin was able to expand out the program’s food delivery component to serve the most vulnerable veterans across the country and provide them with critically needed resources like masks and gloves. In spring 2020, the program helped deliver over 50,000 meal servings to veterans across California, Missouri, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Given the high need of transportation during the pandemic, coupled with the program’s increased support of vulnerable veterans, Franklin worked with other VA officials to craft a project proposal for Congress to receive temporary spending during the public health crisis to expand out the program nationally. The Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020, enacted at the start of 2021, included a section authorizing the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to use appropriated funding to support homeless veterans, including with “transportation required to support stability and health.” This funding has been instrumental in supporting the work of the VA rideshare program.
Officially launched on August 3, 2021, the national VA rideshare program now operates in all 18 of the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) across the country and 53 U.S. states and territories. Since the program’s rollout, Franklin said it has expanded to include 146 healthcare systems and has had a life-saving impact on the lives of thousands of veterans. Over 150 veterans have received assistance re-entering the workforce, 2,000 veterans within VHA’s Homeless Program have received help obtaining food, and the rideshare has provided veterans with more than 70,000 total transports and transportation to over 25,000 medical appointments.
Franklin, who now works as an innovation project manager at NECIE—a center developed to help solve some of VHA’s healthcare challenges through the implementation of innovative technological solutions—said that the platform used to operate the rideshare program has provided veterans and VA officials with the ability to better direct care. Frontline providers submit a rideshare request to the platform, and then artificial intelligence calculates the contracted transit services within the selected geographic region to determine the most efficient ride. The platform also provides a 24/7 customer support center, which helps monitor the rides and assist veterans if they need to reschedule rides or face any issues.
Leandro DaSilva, NECIE’s acting director, said Franklin’s innovative approach to transportation—particularly during the coronavirus pandemic—has allowed the VA to better focus on improving veterans’ quality of life.
“It’s important that visionaries like Charles are able to identify the scope of these problems and then realign their innovative approaches to the homeless population,” DaSilva said. “Having the vision to remove transportation as a social barrier to healthcare, employment, and homelessness allows the VA to enhance and improve the way we help our veterans.”
And the rideshare program is continuing to innovate as it works to reach more at-risk veterans across the country. When a VA network director reached out about concerns regarding after-hours patient flow in hospitals, the rideshare program expanded out its services last October to offer after-hours transportation to the emergency departments across the country. Since its rollout, the program has provided a little over 700 emergency department discharge rides after-hours.
Rural communities remain a priority for the rideshare program, and Franklin said the program is continuing to work on targeted outreach to retired veterans or disabled veterans looking to make supplemental income as Uber or Lyft drivers who can drive other veterans to their appointments and destinations. The platform behind the rideshare program includes their contact information in the system and works to connect them with nearby veterans in search of transportation. Franklin said they’ve already had successes with their rural transportation initiatives in Eastern Oregon, Northern Arizona, Northern Indiana, and other regions.
“Not only are we creating jobs for retired veterans and an opportunity to earn supplemental income, but we’re also helping their peers in that process with accessing transportation in rural communities,” Franklin added.
Beyond the innovative approach to streamlining mobility for veterans, the program is also having a very significant impact on the lives of veterans in need. On more than one occasion, those involved in the program have heard stories from veterans about how access to the service has significantly impacted their lives for the better.
“It’s important to think about the human aspect of what it means to our homeless veterans to have that reliable, on-demand transportation, and to hear the human stories behind each of those rides,” DaSilva said.
Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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