Semcac braces for cuts to driver program
RUSHFORD — Ever since Hayfield resident Donna Kruse's van broke down, she's had to rely on Semcac's volunteer driver program to get her to doctor appointments at Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester.
During the past few weeks, she's been back and forth to the doctor. On Thursday, retired Hayfield resident Jim Ronken, 70, picked her up for yet another appointment.
Kruse is one of 676 seniors in Dodge, FIllmore, Houston, Steele and Winona counties who rely on Semcac's volunteer driver program.
"If this program didn't exist, I wouldn't get around," Kruse said. "It's a struggle, because I want to be independent, and I want to stay here."
Volunteer drivers donate their time and use their personal vehicles to pick up riders and take them to their destinations. The program serves people 60 and older, as well as those younger than 60 who are on medical assistance.
Drivers are reimbursed for the miles they drive, but starting March 1 drivers will see changes in how they are paid for "unloaded" miles.
Semcac transportation director Erlene Welshons said area counties have received less funding for the program as a result of federal cuts, and county boards have indicated they can't afford to fully reimburse drivers for their unloaded miles.
Drivers have been receiving the IRS mileage rate of 51 cents per mile.
Welshons said Dodge, Fillmore and Houston counties have agreed to reimburse drivers at half that rate for unloaded miles, but Steele County won't be paying anything for those miles. Winona County Board members have not yet decided what to pay.
Ronken, who has been a volunteer driver for close to a year, only has to drive one unloaded mile to pick Kruse up at her home, but he's driven as many as 40 unloaded miles on some trips.
On average, he volunteers to give someone a ride six to seven days a week.
"It makes it harder (to want to volunteer) when it starts digging into your own pocket," Ronken said.
He said he'll continue to give rides because he has the option of refusing routes that will give him too many unloaded miles.
Welshons fears some drivers will quit volunteering.
"After a while, those unloaded miles add up," Welshons said.
Marv Bestul, of Rushford, has been volunteering with the program for seven years. He primarily takes seniors from the Rushford area to appointments in Rochester and La Crosse, Wis.
"Most of my unloaded miles are local, so it's not a big deal," Bestul said. "Lately, I've been picking up residents at the nursing home, so for me it's a total of four unloaded miles a trip."
He said the number of trips he makes varies.
"In the last three months, I've made more trips than I did all of last year," Bestul said. "I think it's a good service to the community. I get the opportunity to help people who need assistance."
Welshons believes the volunteer driver program is the most cost-effective way to transport seniors.
"They have no access to taxis or public transportation," she said. "If they don't have family or friends to drive them, we are their only option."
Because of the mileage changes, she believes Semcac's administrative costs will rise.
"Dispatching will be more difficult, and the billing process will have to change," Welschons said.
She fears that without the program, some seniors would lose their independence and need to move to assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
"That could cost the government more money in the long run," Welshons said.