Dawn Ashurst can relate to many of the people she meets as part of her job managing transportation services for West-Central Independent Living Solutions. WILS serves individuals with disabilities in Benton, Henry, Pettis, Saline, Johnson, and Lafayette counties.

Dawn Ashurst is Transportation Manager for West Central Independent Living Services.

So many family members, friends, and neighbors of WILS customers are like Dawn’s parents, she said. They work hard, save their money, and provide a decent living for their kids. But their modest income and assets put them just above the line for any help.

Transportation, for example, is a major challenge for retirees on fixed incomes in rural areas. They have little if any access to public transportation and often no one to drive them. “It’s not everyone who has a daughter like me who can take off work to take them to the doctor,” Ashurst said.

New ride options. Changing this rural transportation picture for working families, seniors, and veterans is why WILS is part of the regional Rides to Health and Wealth initiative, Ashurst said.

The fact that Rides to Health and Wealth will benefit ride providers like WILS, as well as the patients and healthcare providers needing rides, is a driving factor in how this initiative builds broader community benefit.

It is a story of rural partners building better systems by doing better together.

Rides to Health and Wealth is a collaborative west central Missouri effort to build thriving people and places by increasing access to healthcare and community services using the HealthTran ride scheduling and resourcing platform. Together with HealthTran, New Growth, and regional partners, Rides to Health and Wealth coordinator West Central Missouri Community Action Agency is working to connect and optimize existing ride resources and build new options as well, including a regional volunteer driver network.

Getting Rolling. Three regional organizations have signed on to kick off Rides to Health and Wealth in west central Missouri. In addition to WILS, Katy Trail Community Health and Golden Valley Memorial Healthcare will soon begin scheduling rides for their patients in Benton, Henry, and Morgan counties through the HealthTran platform.

More than 40 organizations across nine counties joined in a year-long strategic planning effort. Rides to Health and Wealth moves now to enrolling partners and launching HealthTran in the region, said Project Director Kelly Ast.

“Even with the stress of the current pandemic, our partners are moving forward with this effort,” she said.

Self Interest Works. Rides to Health and Wealth builds on the benefits that each partner stands to gain by participating in the launch of the HealthTran scheduling and resourcing platform in their communities.

On the transportation demand side of the Rides to Health and Wealth formula are healthcare providers and community organizations that will use the HealthTran platform to schedule and pay for patient and customer rides. It offers them two bottom-line benefits in addition to serving clients better. One is new revenue from appointments that people are able to keep. Another is lower costs when people get the preventative care, groceries, physical rehabilitation, social contact and other things they need.

Katy Trail Community Health has locations in Warsaw, Versailles, Sedalia, and Marshall.

“We’re optimistic this will enable us to see people who need to be seen on a more regular basis, for things like diabetes and high blood pressure,” said Diann Rice, Patient Care Coordinator for Katy Trail Community Health at its Warsaw location. “We are not able to follow up with them as often as our providers like because of transportation issues that pop up. We just don’t have transportation resources available here.”

Supply Side. That’s where Dawn Ashurst and WILS come into the picture.

As an organization with vehicles and drivers, WILS is on the transportation supply side of the Rides to Health and Wealth formula. WILS’s four handicapped accessible vehicles and three drivers will soon be on call through the HealthTran scheduling platform for ride requests from member healthcare and community service organizations in Benton and Henry counties.

The benefit for WILS is more about saving money than making money.

Ashurst said WILS is plenty busy shuttling its own customers. But there are many instances in which WILS vehicles and drivers could be available, such as cancellations, or the four hours that a driver is waiting to take a WILS customer home from dialysis.

West Central Independent Living Services will both provide rides through HealthTran and use the platform’s volunteer driver network.

“HealthTran will be a way for us to keep running when we’re not running,” she said. “Some Mondays we have the whole week booked, and by Tuesday morning they’re all gone.”

The extra efficiency that HealthTran offers this nonprofit will add up to extra flexibility and capacity, Ashurst said.

“I may not be making money, but I will be stretching my budget. And if I can stretch my budget, then maybe I can hire an additional driver and offer more rides.”

The volunteer driver network that HealthTran and West Central are now organizing for more ride options will also help WILS stretch its transportation budget, she said. Sometimes a customer in Warsaw will need a ride across town, but WILS’ vehicles and drivers are miles away in Warrensburg or Sedalia.

“We’ll probably use HealthTran’s volunteer drivers for some of those in-town trips because it’s more affordable than sending one of our drivers if they are not in the area,” she said.

Ambulance Relief. HealthTran’s combination of volunteer drivers and contracted fleets like WILS benefits other Rides to Health and Wealth partners, such as area ambulance districts.

Significant pressure on rural ambulance districts comes from trips that insurance does not cover completely and calls that are not emergencies, said Denise Hopkins, office administrator with the Nevada-based, taxpayer-funded Vernon County Ambulance District.

It’s both a financial and a capacity pressure.

“We’re rural, so our shortest trip to a tertiary hospital (referral to a larger facility) is going to be one hour. We won’t leave our community unprotected, so we won’t take another transfer when one truck is already out of the county.”

But when any call comes in, the Vernon County Ambulance District has to take it, even if it does not end up being an emergency.

“HealthTran can benefit us by taking some of those really unneeded transports away. That would take off some of the (financial and capacity) stress,” Hopkins said.

Gearing Up. HealthTran’s new transportation manager Jim McGee will bring his experience with the platform to the work of building up the supply side of rural transportation, said Mary Gordon, manager of HealthTran, which is operated by the Missouri Rural Health Association. HealthTran is working on this not only with the Rides to Health and Wealth initiative in west central Missouri but with other organizations and initiatives statewide.

McGee recently retired as director of both an ambulance district and an associated non-emergency medical fleet in south central Missouri.

“Jim will be helping non-traditional transportation sites, such as nursing homes and volunteer groups with vehicles (churches, senior facilities) prepare for transporting others outside their organizations.” Gordon said.

McGee experienced HealthTran’s win-win benefits firsthand during HealthTran’s pilot effort in the West Plains area.

Rides to Health and Wealth is a regional initiative to build rural transportation options using the HealthTran ride scheduling and resourcing platform.

“The South Howell County Ambulance District began a relationship in 2016 with HealthTran for medical transport pickup and reimbursement for specific transports,” he said. “With this relationship our (reimbursed non-emergency) transport numbers increased.” This benefit to the district was also a benefit to patients, providers and the community, he said. “More people were getting to their appointments, which meant they were not getting as sick.”

“HealthTran is a win-win situation for all involved,” McGee said. “The result in our area was, and is, improved quality of life for patients and reduced costs for all providers of health care at all levels.”

WILS’ Ashurst can see it happening in west central Missouri.

“A large segment of the population cannot get Medicaid transportation because their income is just above the line, or they own property,” she said. “They can’t get a ride to the doctor, the grocery store, or even to church to make friends who might give them a ride.,” she said.

HealthTran can get those people where they need to go by leveraging and building ride resources, she said. “Once our HealthTran driver network gets robust, I will have opportunity to build our program and offer more rides to the community like local schools. … It builds community. It’s going to help everybody. I think it’s a fantastic idea.”

To learn more about Rides to Health and Wealth and its regional work with HealthTran, contact project director Kelly Ast at 660-476-5905 Ext. 3162 or .

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