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WMTS expands services to VA clinic for vets
REGION — To help veterans, Western Maine Transportation Services (WMTS) started a direct service to the Lewiston-Auburn VA Clinic in February.
"Our understanding had been, and continues to be that [the VA] is not always available to provide transportation, for a variety of different reasons," says Craig Zurhorst, WMTS community relations director.
"Since we were bringing our buses down from Rumford, Farmington area and from Oxford Hills at least one day a week, we figured ... we can just build into the runs that we could get [vets] all the way down to the clinic. It doesn't hurt us a bit and it could help them a lot," Zurhorst explains.
Jerry DeWitt, the Veteran's Outreach Coordinator for Tri-Country Mental Health has worked with WMTS to get the system working and says that the transportation option is already vital and will become more important.
DeWitt says that by the time the Lewiston-Auburn clinic is fully staffed it will be able to provide 85 percent of the outpatient services currently offered at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.
That means that vets won't have to travel all the way to Augusta to receive care.
WMTS will be able to provide a vital link for veterans traveling to Lewiston, DeWitt says.
"It's going to have a renowned effect," DeWitt says. "We can't even see how much of an effect it's going to have on anybody.
"It's on an individual basis. Each person you help in whatever little way you can, that makes a big difference on their life and transportation is a big part of that."
DeWitt says that the service is especially important for WWII vets who need substantial care, but may not have access to reliable transportation.
WMTS expanded services to vets in order to show it was a viable method of public transportation.
Since 1976, WMTS has served as a vital link between people who may be disabled or do not have access to a vehicle and critical services.
In Oxford Hills, WMTS is represented by "the green bus," a wheelchair-accessible paratransit bus commonly seen around the area.
WMTS ferries people to medical appointments, personal services, shopping and daytime social activities, and its role continues to grow across the three counties it serves – Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin.
Zurhorst says that one of the biggest misconceptions of WMTS is that it isn't open to the public – but it is.
Anyone can request the service, provided they call 24-hours in advance.
The fee for riding the bus is calculated on a sliding scale depending on distance, age and type of appointment – seniors, children, the disabled and Medicare clients have reduced ticket prices.
Riders often use the service to reach appointments with Department of Health and Human Services (DHHs) or MaineCare medical appointments and these riders are given priority.
The volume of riders who use WMTS for these services may be part of the misconception that WMTS isn't open to the public, Zurhorst says.
"For so long, our green buses have been so swamped by people going to and from MaineCare appointments and other state contract appointments that we have to offer first, that we have had relatively few availabilities for the general public to ride," he explains.
Zurhorst hopes that possible changes in WMTS in the future may allow the company to provide more services to the general public.
He cautions, however, that those who would like to see an expanded public transportation network across the state may be disappointed.
As a rural state, Maine cannot provide the rider density that can be achieved in bigger cities, Zurhorst says – that makes mass-transit inherently expensive and somewhat inefficient.
Although people are experimenting with public transit options in the state, Zurhorst doesn't believe it will translate into immediate change.
"I don't see anything in the immediate future that's going to get us to where we were in the 1940s and 50s," he says.
If you are interested in learning about WMTS or scheduling a pick-up call WMTS at 1-800-393-9335 or visit www.wmtsbus.org.