TRENTON – Transportation is the biggest challenge facing New Jersey veterans, in some cases keeping disabled veterans from needed medical care, lawmakers were told Wednesday in an online hearing.

The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs works cooperatively with the 21 counties on providing transportation options, but veterans groups told the Legislature it is an inadequate system that often leaves people unable to get to or from medical appointments unless they arrange a ride four weeks ahead.

Bill Graves, president of the Blinded Veterans Association New Jersey Regional Group, said the Lyons VA Medical Center in Bernards Township has a good vision care program – but that many veterans simply cannot get there to benefit from it.

“So, people can’t even get to have their eyes checked, tests or taken care of,” Graves said. “This is a major, major problem.”

Toms River resident John O’Connell said despite living in the nation’s most densely populated state and in his case, living in the municipality with the most veterans in the state, the programs run by the county and options from volunteer groups are inadequate for even a trip to a clinic in Brick.

He said the federal government has a rural transportation grant program that could be helpful but that it’s not available to residents of New Jersey.

“If I was a veteran in the middle of Montana or Kansas, I would actually have an easier, it would be easier for me to get to VA medical appointments,” O’Connell said.

Mustafa Shabazz, vice president of the Blinded Veterans Association New Jersey Regional Group, said in the late 1990s, there was funding for veterans’ associations to provide transportation to the hospitals and medical centers but that it was taken away around 20 years ago.

That forces those volunteer groups to raise funds to afford their vehicles and gasoline, which they sometimes can only operate sporadically because the drivers aren’t paid.

“I just think that’s shameful,” said Bob Andrzejczak, a disabled veteran and former state lawmaker. “For a minimal cost, we can be providing a better service all around to our veterans.”

Johnnie Walker, adjutant for Disabled American Veterans Department of New Jersey, said the DAV runs three vans out of Cape May County that transport veterans to out-of-state VA appointments.

He said a van with six veterans leaves at around 6 a.m., drops half of them off in Philadelphia for their medical appointments, then takes the others to Wilmington, Delaware, for cancer treatment. When it’s done, they drive the three back to Philly, pick up the first group and get back home at 7 p.m.

“And anybody that’s ever had chemo or radiation may understand they don’t want to be in a van for eight, nine hours. They want to be home in bed,” Walker said. “The transportation system with the VA is in terrible, terrible condition. We know this.”

Joseph Nyzio, chief of the Veterans Benefits Bureau in the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the state partners on veterans’ transportation programs with all 21 counties but concedes they are lacking for money and vehicles.

“Is it a perfect program? Absolutely not,” Nyzio told the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “And all these shortcomings, all the testimony you hear today, we’ve heard for years.”

Get our free mobile app

Nyzio said the federal VA has been pushing for years to get veterans into VA hospitals for care – which increases the demand for transportation.

“We probably haven’t built the program up enough over these last 20 years or however long the program’s been going on,” he said. “But there is an actual program. It does have its shortfalls and issues, just like any program out there.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

Click here to contact an editor about feedback or a correction for this story.

Best coffee places recommended in Central Jersey

7 things NJ should ban right now