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Van will shuttle veterans

Hernando County veterans voted Friday for a six-month trial run for a shuttle service that will deliver disabled and financially strapped veterans to James A. Haley Hospital in Tampa.

Starting Nov. 15, Mid-Florida Community Services, a private non-profit agency, will begin providing rides for veterans who need routine health care but are "transportation disadvantaged."

The decision on the trial period was made at a meeting Friday that included veterans, county officials and health-care representatives.

Bob Stojkic of the Marine Corps League proposed the six-month evaluation period and said it would provide time to work out any kinks in the program. Several veterans countered, saying three months was long enough.

"If we do three months, we're only going to come back here and face something that's still up in the air," Stojkic told the 30 veterans in attendance.

In the end, veterans and county officials unanimously agreed with Stojkic.

Under the terms of the agreement, funds will be channeled from the county to Mid-Florida. It is expected to cost $100 each time the van makes a trip to Tampa.

So far, veterans groups have donated more than $2,200 to the program. Mid-Florida already has earmarked a $5,200 contribution from the county. Individuals riding the van will not have to pay.

Ken Wrinkle, the county veterans service officer, said rides to Tampa will be open to all veterans who need them, regardless of affiliation.

There are 23,000 veterans in Hernando County. Only 4,000 to 5,000 are members of a veterans group, he said. Wrinkle hopes to get the word out to others through advertising.

Here's how the shuttle program will work:

Veterans will be required to have a reservation, though how far in advance is not yet certain.

On Tuesday and Thursday morning, a van operated by a driver from Mid-Florida's Trans-Hernando service will pick up veterans at five sites in the county.

The van will travel a 36-mile loop beginning at State Road 50 and Spring Lake Highway, where the vehicle will be headquartered, and pick up passengers at two stops on SR 50.

The van will then make stops on U.S. 19, County Line Road and Spring Hill Drive, making the total drive time about an hour and a half before leaving Hernando County.

Pickups would begin at 6 a.m. for vets with 9 a.m. appointments in Tampa.

County Commissioner Nancy Robinson estimated the round trip to Tampa would take about 13 hours, but said there is a built-in flexibility factor. It depends on what time the first and last appointments fall on any given day and whether the van deviates from its route, she said.

One thing the veterans can count on is getting an appointment on Tuesday or Thursday. Robinson said the hospital has agreed to schedule the veterans on those two days.

Wrinkle asked all certified service officers to conduct qualification screenings and introduce the program to their chapters. Once a veteran qualifies, he or she may call Mid-Florida to schedule an appointment.

Wrinkle will provide details on screening qualifications at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 67.

Wrinkle is upbeat about getting the program up and running and said he would like to see the program expand to five days a week eventually.

The bus stops here

Here are the stops where veterans can board the van that will take them to Tampa for doctors' appointments:

State Road 50 and Spring Lake Highway, east of Brooksville.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8713 on Jefferson Street on the east side of Brooksville.

Disabled American Veterans Chapter 67, SR 50 west of Brooksville.

American Legion Post 186, U.S. 19, in Spring Hill.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8681, County Line Road, Spring Hill.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10209, Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill.

For information, call Ken Wrinkle, the county's veterans service officer, at 754-4033.