Way2Go paratransit service seeks funding to meet growing need

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Jimmie Price has been attending dialysis appointments for the past eight years of his life. It is a demanding treatment that he receives three times a week for a number of hours and it leaves him weak and unfit to drive.

It is the 69-year-old amputee’s first year using Marion County’s Way2Go paratransit service and he wishes he had heard about it years ago.

“This is a way of life. Without dialysis, I wouldn’t be around. And without this service, I wouldn’t get to dialysis,” Price said.

“It’s a relief of the mind. It’s dependable, direct, on time and reliable. They don’t rush you and they look out for your safety.”

The CICOA Aging & In-Home Solutions Way2Go paratransit program provides medical trips among its services to adults 65 years old and older and for those with disabilities. It also assists with trips to the grocery store, the bank and social outings. But due to capacity constraints and limited funding, officials say they are currently unable to meet the growing need for this service.

Program director Susan Starwalt said that while Way2Go has provided 59,000 trips in the past 11 months, each year they are forced to deny 3,000 trips for dialysis patients and almost 1,000 trips for regular medical appointments.

“These are people who miss their appointment. They need to reschedule them or they just flat out miss them all together and that costs their medical provider money as well as themselves,” Starwalt said. “Dialysis appointments are where our biggest waiting list is.”

“I’ve had several calls from people who would like to go take a painting class or take their dog to the vet but those are things that we just don’t have the capacity to do at the moment.”

CICOA recently purchased a new vehicle with wheelchair access to add to their fleet of six and has launched a crowd-funding campaign called One Wheel More to help fund its operations.

CEO Orion Bell said they were awaiting four more wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“The challenge is the fuel, paying the drivers, the insurance and all other maintenance,” Bell said. “There are so many more therapeutic services available to people, but as the treatment has evolved, the access to it sometimes comes down to their ability to get there. The other option would be institutional care, so paratransit is part of an overall strategy to help people maintain their independence and stay connected with the community.”

“Typically we provide around 650 trips for essential needs each month, and I think we should be able to do a substantial increase on that with the extra vehicle — about 80 more trips a month.”

Bell says he doesn’t see demand slowing down anytime soon. He said that between 2010 and 2030, the population of Central Indiana is expected to double.

Way2Go’s two main sources of funding are at the federal level and while current funding is stable, it is insufficient to meet aging residents’ needs.

“We’re a low tax state. There’s not as much money invested into public programs like that than there might be in other parts of the country,” Bell said.

“People live longer and sometimes with chronic health conditions. They are health conditions that require ongoing maintenance and treatment.”

Paratransit services in surrounding counties have similarly felt the impact of this growing demand and agree more funding is crucial.

PrimeLife Enrichment executive director Sandy Stewart said Hamilton County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation and that their senior population also is growing quickly.

“According to the 2010 Census, the population 55 and above in Hamilton has increased by 90.6 per cent since 2000,” she said. “The longer individuals live, the more likely they are going to need some assistance with activities of daily living. Accessible transportation is absolutely essential to maintaining independence for elders.”

Steve Gerber, executive director of Coordinated Aging Services of Morgan County, said that the recent recession was a large factor prohibiting people from being mobile.

“People are out of work, cannot afford vehicles, or choose not to own them to reduce their own cost,” Gerber said. “Our hours are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and without more dollars, we cannot offer weekend or evening services for the working crowd because we cannot hire more drivers or use more vehicles.”

“Income compared to expense is almost identical for rural transit companies like us. This means no dollars available to do more.”

Since most transit is carried out within each respective county, long trips across county lines also pose challenges.

In some Central Indiana counties, such as Boone and Hancock, the senior transit program doubles as the public transit entity. Since some counties do not have a full-service hospital or dialysis facility of their own, the travel costs can be prohibitive.

“In almost every federal agency that’s being served, transportation is part of every single one of them,” Starwalt said.

“If only we could bring all of those together, because they’re providing their own transportation for specific groups, such as veterans or disabilities or mental health only,” she said. “If we could just lump that all together, I think we could do a better job at coordinating and serving the community overall.”

Starwalt said she fears that there probably are many more people who need the service who have not reached out because they are hesitant to take that first step or think others need the service more.

Population estimates from the 2013 Five-Year American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that almost 40 percent of Hoosiers 65 years old and older living in Indianapolis have a disability, of which 68 percent are physically limited.

Price has told many of his friends about the Way2Go service, and they are currently on the waiting list.

“The more vehicles there are, the better they can serve patients who need this care,” Price said. “More funding is a must because there is a great demand for this service.”

Originally published at Indianapolis Star, USA Today, The Arizona RepublicDetroit Free PressThe Tennessean or Democrat & Chronicle.

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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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