Veterans Day Ceremony

Children in the audience join in at the stage for the Pledge of Allegiance during the Festival Fairbanks's annual Veterans Day Ceremony Monday morning, November 11, 2019 at the Westmark Hotel. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed November 11th as Armistice Day in 1919, commemorating the official end of World War I a year earlier. The name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all veterans, not just those who served in WWI.

U.S. Rep. Don Young and two other House members introduced a bill that ensures military veterans in remote rural communities will continue to have access to free transportation to Veterans Affairs health facilities.

The Highly Rural Veteran Transportation Program within the Department of Veterans Affairs would make permanent a free transportation program for veterans living in highly rural areas, which comprise many Alaska communities.

In addition to Young, U.S. Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York and Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, who chairs the Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, are sponsoring the legislation.

Under current law, the free transportation program has to be re-authorized every two years by Congress. Young and the other sponsors want to make it permanent.

The program enables state agencies that serve veterans to provide transportation at no cost to VA-authorized health care facilities, which include hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.

“I am committed to ensuring that the rural veterans who put their lives on the line for us are not forgotten,” said Young, who served in the U.S. Army. “As a veteran myself, I want my friends on both sides of the aisle to know how important this cause is to me.”

More than 3,000 Alaska veterans in remote communities were served by the program from October 2019 to September 2020, the most recent figures available.

"Given that this occurred during the pandemic, utilization next year is expected to increase," said Zack Brown, communications director for Young.

Nationwide, more than 4.5 million veterans live in highly rural communities, where affording transportation to a VA health care facility could prevent or delay medical care.

The goal is to ensure that a vital service for U.S. veterans is not impacted by partisan politics, which could happen if congressional approval is required every two years, Young said.

“A program as important as this one should not be used as a negotiating tool or to gain political leverage,” he said. “Our veterans are not props; they deserve the certainty and peace of mind that comes with permanent reauthorization.”

Added Pappas: “The zip code or county in which a veteran lives should not determine their level of access to the care and services they have earned through their service to our country.”

Contact political reporter Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics