March 30, 2023

Several times a month, Jim Maybach drives five miles from his home in Hay Creek, Minnesota, toward the Mississippi.

When he reaches Red Wing, a town of nearly 17,000, the 79-year-old retired engineer stops to pick up a senior who he then drops off for an appointment, such as a dentist visit or a gym class. When the deal ends, Maybach is there to drive the person home.

It’s a route and routine that he repeats a few times a month.

Unpaid, Maybach is a cadre volunteer organized by Faith in Action at Red Wing, a nonprofit that relies on retirees to get residents to essential services.

The riders, mostly seniors, are people who do not have direct access to transportation, especially in rural areas where public transportation options are limited or non-existent.

There are several such programs serving rural counties in Minnesota, but, as with other services across the country, their existence has become precarious as the number of volunteer drivers has steadily declined, according to transportation advocates. Volunteers are either reaching a point where age makes them incapable of driving, or the costs associated with their volunteer work are no longer sustainable. For decades, Congress has refused to raise the rate at which drivers can be reimbursed for expenses.

Experts say that with public transport in rural areas already inadequate and the long distances residents in rural communities have to travel to access health care, a decimated network of volunteer drivers would leave seniors with even fewer transport options and could interrupt their health management. Community organizations that rely on volunteers have already begun to limit their service options and deny ride requests if drivers are not available.

Recognizing the need for drivers in their community is often what prompted volunteers to sign up in the first place, but as auto insurance and gas costs rise, the stakes aren’t “the attractive win-win situation it once was.” said Frank Douma, director of state and local policy and outreach for the Institute for Urban and Regional Infrastructure Finance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

See also  A lack of sleep can make you selfish, study suggests

Volunteers, such as Maybach, are eligible for a 14 cents per mile allowance, which is generally nowhere near the cost of gasoline and wear and tear on a vehicle. And while the Internal Revenue Service raised the business rate from 58.5 cents per mile to 62.5 cents per mile in June, it has not increased the charitable rate because it falls within the purview of Congress and must be enacted by law. The charity rate was last changed in 1997.

Despite the long-standing charitable rate, United Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit that operates a voluntary driving program in southwestern Minnesota, has for years reimbursed drivers with the corporate rate. The program administrators were unaware that the IRS could count as income the compensation of volunteers who exceed the charitable rate.

The organization experienced its “first major drop” in the number of volunteer drivers before the Covid-19 pandemic after it discovered the IRS rule and told volunteers about the tax implications of higher reimbursement rates, said Shelly Pflaum, the driver of the driving program. .

And while the nonprofit continued to refund at the corporate rate, the remaining executives were frustrated that when gas prices rose in the spring, the rate remained at just 58.5 cents per mile, which didn’t cover the cost of gas or maintenance.

“If you pay almost five dollars for gas, it’s no use,” Pflaum said. “So there were some concerns, ‘With what I’m spending to drive my vehicle, this is no longer reasonable for me — I can’t afford to volunteer,’ what it essentially boiled down to.”

The June rise in IRS rates was enough to convince most drivers to stay, but Pflaum said she lost a volunteer who has been driving for nearly 20 years.

See also  Cancer care at risk as nurses strike: Health leaders warn of ‘real concerns’ for patients

The issue of unequal rates has received bipartisan attention in Congress, with the introduction of two bills — both sponsored by Minnesota representatives proposing to increase the charitable mileage reimbursement rate to the corporate rate. Similar proposals have been made before in Congress and have failed.

According to 2018 survey through the Volunteer Driver Coalition, Minnesota had 1,900 volunteers that year serving 77,000 riders collectively.

One persistent hurdle volunteers face is convincing their auto insurers that they are, in fact, volunteers and not rental drivers like Lyft or Uber drivers. Otherwise, the insurers could require them to buy more expensive insurance intended for commercial drivers.

A AARP Public Policy Institute analysis found that, as of September 2020, seven states had enacted laws prohibiting insurance providers from refusing or canceling insurance or raising rates because the driver is a volunteer. Only two states had differentiated between drivers and volunteers in their insurance statutes at the time.

Last year, Minnesota passed legislation that differentiated volunteer drivers from drivers-for-hire. Legislators also reduced the drivers’ potential tax liability.

In southeastern Minnesota, the driver shortage prompted a program at the nonprofit Semcac to cut back on the types of rides it offers. It limits users to two non-medical trips per month.

“We would allow more if we had the drivers to do that, but we don’t want to take the drivers on non-medical rides and then someone won’t show up for their doctor’s appointment,” said Jessica Schwering, operations manager at Semcac. “There’s a lot more need than we can meet, and it’s only going to get worse.”

If Semcac cannot arrange a driver for a community member who needs a ride, the person should look for an alternative, such as a ride from a relative, or their health care provider should find one. Semcac works with certain insurance companies to get their clients to medical and dental appointments. Not all volunteer driver programs have this structure.

See also  Awaiting voters’ decision on abortion when medicine and politics clash

Schwering manages 53 drivers across six counties nationwide. About half of them are in Winona County, a swath of nearly 650 square miles southeast of Minneapolis along the Mississippi River. She estimates that the average driver is 80 years old.

Schwering said volunteers who stop driving for her nonprofit most often cite medical reasons, such as not being approved by their doctor.

Douma, of the University of Minnesota, said the average age of volunteers is also a factor in the decline. “When the baby boomers retired, they drove people of the silent generation and the largest generation, who were less numerous than the baby boomers, so you had more people available to drive for fewer people,” he said. “But as the baby boomers get older, the ones most eligible to drive them are Gen X — and that’s a much smaller generation.”

Jim Maybach started riding for Faith in Action after retiring in 2011. Six years later, his wife, Judie, now 78, joined him after she retired. They have a hard time imagining that they will stop soon.

Still, their volunteer program has begun planning a new recruiting strategy to bring in a much younger base of stay-at-home parents.

“We were just trying to think, ‘Well, who else can we get?’” said Katherine Bonine, executive director of Faith in Action. “Because when we have our seniors, we’ve made a transition from volunteer to recipient as they get older and their driving skills change.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national editorial that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs on KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).