Rural public transportation gives people access to medical facilities, but still has flaws
April 30, 2011 by willis.chelsey
by Chelsey Willis
Walking the streets in Jackson County, Georgia, you will not see public buses or a metro railway system other than the typical yellow school bus or the railroad tracks that cross over the streets. These railroad tracks are used for shipping cargo, not people.
Instead, you might see a 10-passenger van similar to an airport parking van with the words “Jackson County Transit System” down its side. This van is one of two vans that make up the county-wide transit system offering services to residents without access to other means of transportation.
Public transportation in rural areas is uncommon, because of the cost associated with it and the little demand for it which makes Jackson County’s transit system unique.
Some, however, think it is an issue of awareness and publicity and are working hard at changing it.
Many of the medical facilities throughout the county distribute brochures to patients advertising the transit system so that people who need accessible transportation are aware of it.
“There are still a lot of people who are unaware of our system even after at least 15 years of service, but we are growing every day,” said Smith.
The “Dial-A-Ride” service, as it is commonly called, is a shared-rider, curb-to-curb service. Trips are by appointment only, meaning there is no routine schedule. It offers flat rates for in-county and out-of-county routes, either one way or round trip.
In a large land area where routes are long because stores and offices are spread throughout, it helps to answer the issue of residents needing access to food, their employment space, and, most importantly, medical facilities.
Limited access to medical attention and adequate healthcare could have serious health consequences for the individuals affected, especially given that groups in most need of public transportation—low income, disabled, and elderly persons—are already high at risk for health problems.
“We take people to all kinds of medical appointments all over the county on a daily basis, many of whom are in wheelchairs or have care providers who ride free,” said Veda Smith, Transit Coordinator.
Among the most common medical destinations are Jackson Creative, a clinic for people with severe disabilities, and the Jackson County Mental Health Clinic. Few people ask for a ride to either of the two Jackson County health clinics located in Jefferson and Commerce.
“Many of our patients don’t require public transportation, but if they don’t have access to a car, we are within walking distance of many of them,” said JoAnn Strickland, Nurse Manager for Jackson County.
Strickland has been with the Commerce Health Clinic for 23 years.
Despite its availability, some residents are not using the transit system for medical situations. Instead, they are calling Jackson County Emergency Services, even for non-emergency situations such as medical appointments and prescription refills.
“We call ourselves the society safety net,” said Michael Gosnell, the Assistant Director of Jackson County EMS, referring to his department’s ever-changing duties and roles.
Sometimes non-emergency calls take ambulances outside Jackson County EMS’s designated service area. When electrical problems shut down the Barrow County Dialysis Clinic, where many Jackson residents routinely receive services, Jackson County EMTs drove patients to Athens and Gainesville for appointments.
“We were having to go outside our needed area of response which could have prevented us from addressing actual emergencies, said Gosnell. Had there been a major car crash or fire with casualties, Jackson County would have summoned EMT services from neighboring counties.
People like calling the ambulance because it comes immediately, they’re not asked to pay on the spot, and EMTs will load disabled people on stretchers or in wheelchairs. This is obviously much more convenient than waiting for the van service to arrive, and on the face of it appears cheaper than calling a private ambulance service.
Private ambulances are expensive and won’t transport anyone without a sound medical reason. The transit system requires 24-hour, only runs during business hours on the weekdays, and costs $6 round-trip inside the county and $16 round-trip outside the county.
“It isn’t always a transportation or accessibility issue. Sometimes, it’s a financial issue,” said Gosnell, “if the transit system could find a better mechanism for low costs or no cost and easier appointment access, it could help us out.”