Transportation to Support Rural Healthcare
Transportation is an important social determinant of health in rural communities. The availability of reliable transportation impacts a person’s ability to access appropriate and well-coordinated healthcare, purchase nutritious food, and otherwise care for him or herself. Rural populations most likely to need transportation services to maintain their health and well-being include:
- the elderly
- people with disabilities
- low-income individuals and families
- veterans and people with special healthcare needs, who often must travel long distances to access care
This guide focuses on how communities can provide transportation services to support access to rural healthcare, which may also benefit healthcare providers by decreasing inappropriate use of EMS services, improving utilization of healthcare services, and decreasing no-show rates. The guide also highlights transportation as a community-based service that can allow the elderly and people with disabilities to live successfully in a community rather than entering a long-term care facility or leaving the community.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Where can I get help planning and funding transportation projects?
- Where can I get help finding local transportation programs and services?
- What are the health-related consequences of not having transportation for rural residents, including the elderly and people with disabilities?
- What strategies can rural communities and healthcare facilities use to provide non-emergency medical transportation services?
- What issues should facilities and organizations consider when providing transportation?
- Can Medicaid be used to subsidize non-emergency medical transportation?
- What resources are available to assist my rural community in planning, developing or expanding public transit services that would help the elderly, disabled, and low-income individuals access healthcare services?
- What are the types of accommodations rural transportation providers must support to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and who is eligible for these special accommodations?
- Are there programs or grant opportunities to help tribal communities improve transportation services?
- Are there grants or programs to assist veterans in rural areas with transportation to VA medical centers and other VA and non-VA facilities for medical care?
Where can I get help planning and funding transportation projects?
The following organizations provide resources and technical assistance related to rural transportation projects:
Community Transportation of Association of America
Provides a wide variety of information on economic development, financing, technical assistance, and a resource depot of publications focusing on issues of rural and urban public and community transportation.
National Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP)
Provides training and technical assistance products and services that are developed nationally, for distribution and replication by the states to local transit agencies. Supports a National Transit Resource Center offering access to information and expertise, and an online list of state RTAP contacts.
Phone: 888.589.6821 or 202.772.2039
Easter Seals Project ACTION
Promotes cooperation between the transportation industry and citizens with disabilities to increase their mobility under the ADA and beyond.
United We Ride Technical Assistance Resources
A federal interagency initiative aimed at improving the availability, quality, and efficient delivery of transportation services for older adults, people with disabilities, and individuals with lower incomes. Offers a list of technical assistance agencies.
Where can I get help finding local transportation programs and services?
To learn about transit options in your area and help rural residents find transportation:
Provides information and resources that can be used by Community Action Agencies and others to help low-income persons and families move toward self-sufficiency and to reduce poverty in communities across the United States. Includes directories of local community action agencies by state or agency.
National Community Action Foundation
A private, non-profit organization that serves as the national advocate for Community Action Agencies (CAAs), community-based programs located throughout the country that assist low-income families and individuals.
National Rural Transit Assistance Program Directory of State RTAP Managers
Provides a searchable directory of state RTAP managers by state, name and keyword.
What are the health-related consequences of not having transportation for rural residents, including the elderly and people with disabilities?
Accessible transportation options can make the difference between healthcare access and no access for many people in rural areas. Often elderly individuals and individuals with disabilities have greater healthcare needs than other rural residents, and living in rural areas isolated from healthcare providers causes them added difficulties. Distance to healthcare can have a significant impact on their quality of life, their health, and their safety. Distance and available transportation go hand in hand when it comes to preventing the elderly and people with disabilities from receiving the healthcare that they need.
- Increase in delayed or missed trips to receive healthcare services
- Disruption in ongoing treatments and services for chronically ill patients
- Travel distance to health services and the related costs affected patients’ healthcare decisions
- Travel time spent to access healthcare can affect patients physically and cause stress
- Use of some medications like insulin declines as patients live farther from their source of care
Studies have shown that it is cost-effective and improves the quality of life to provide transportation for medical treatment to low-income, elderly and the disabled patients. A study by the Transit Cooperative Research Program, Cost Benefit Analysis of Providing Non-Emergency Medical Transportation, showed the differences between the cost of poorly-managed and well-managed care, as well as the differences in quality of life. They found that reduction in healthcare costs and improvement in quality of life would more than offset the costs required to provide non-emergency medical transportation. Missing a routine or preventive care service because of transportation can lead to poorly managed care, a need for emergency care and preventable hospitalizations.
Providing effective transportation options to healthcare services for low-income, elderly, and disabled recipients keeps them out of hospitals and nursing homes, allowing them to remain contributing members of the community as well as lead healthier lives while keeping health costs down.
What strategies can rural communities and healthcare facilities use to provide non-emergency medical transportation services?
According to a study funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) titled Transportation, Distance, and Health Care Utilization for Older Adults in Rural and Small Urban Areas, "The greatest problems for people using public transportation for health care trips are inconvenient schedules, the need to match transit and medical schedules, and infrequent service."
Many strategies have been implemented in rural communities across the country to provide non-emergency medical transportation services. Some of the more commonly used strategies for communities who have some kind of transportation service available include:
- Hiring a mobility management vendor to streamline scheduling and dispatch efforts
- Creating a website and customer service contact center for direct trip requests
- Centralizing staff for trip eligibility determination and reservation requests
- Setting schedules for medical trips to specialty care centers to reduce travel times and to provide consistent service.
- Implementing an interactive voice response (IVR) system that calls the night before to confirm or allow a cancellation, as well as same day notification when vehicle is near rider location
- Broadly disseminating information about the availability of transit services
In some communities where formal transportation services are not available, healthcare facilities or community organizations have chosen to fill the healthcare transportation gap by:
- Offering transportation services for healthcare appointments using paid or volunteer drivers
- Coordinating a shared ride/cost transportation program (a door-to-door, advance-reservation, ride-sharing service)
- Brokering out coordinated trips to qualified vendors
- Using telehealth to decrease the travel required for local patients to access specialty care
- Starting a mobile clinic to take healthcare services to patients in remote areas
- Providing some services in local schools to reach low-income or high needs children
- Having Community Health Workers or Community Paramedics visit people in their homes, which may decrease the frequency of trips for medical care
What issues should facilities and organizations consider when providing transportation?
Screening and training of drivers
Whether using volunteer or paid drivers, care should be taken to screen the drivers to ensure the safety of patients. In addition, drivers should be adequately trained just like any other staff member, including topics such as safety, how to assist patients, and the necessity of confidentiality.
Before implementing a transportation program, liability issues must be fully investigated and considered, particularly when using volunteer drivers or personal vehicles.
Funding the program
How will the program be funded and maintained? Facilities might approach state transportation departments or local foundations regarding potential funding. In addition, facilities can explore partnerships with other organizations or agencies serving the community.
For additional information about volunteer driver programs, see the Community Transportation Association’s Volunteer Driver Transportation Programs and the National Volunteer Transportation Center Resource Library.
Can Medicaid be used to subsidize non-emergency medical transportation?
States are required to cover non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) to Medicaid beneficiaries who need transportation in order to access medically needed services. This includes both local providers of care and tertiary healthcare facilities. See Henry J. Kaiser Foundation’s Medicaid Benefits: Non-Emergency Medical Transportation Services.
What resources are available to assist my rural community in planning, developing or expanding public transit services that would help the elderly, disabled, and low-income individuals access healthcare services?
Organizations that can assist rural communities with transit planning include:
- State departments of transportation
- Local councils of government
- Private transportation companies
- Economic and community development corporations
- Regional planning organizations that can assist rural communities undertaking transit planning projects
Also, individual state Rural Transit Assistance Programs (RTAPs) provide workshops, on-site training, educational materials, and peer assistance. Contact your state's department of transportation for information on your state RTAP resources.
The Community Transportation Association of America, a national organization, offers a variety of technical assistance and guides for communities looking to initiate and/or expand transportation services and programs that link people to jobs, medical care and other destinations necessary for quality of life. In addition, SBA.gov provides assistance with the development of small businesses that could include a non-emergency medical transportation business.
What are the types of accommodations rural transportation providers must support to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and who is eligible for these special accommodations?
Rural transportation providers are not required to provide service in any rural area. However, if they do provide a fixed-route service they are required to comply with ADA and be accessible. They must provide ADA complementary paratransit service for those individuals with disabilities who cannot use fixed-route service. If another type of transportation service is offered such as a taxi or shuttle, ADA regulations will apply regarding equivalent and reasonable accommodations.
Regulations and technical assistance materials are available from the Americans with Disabilities Act website. Also, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Topic Guides on ADA Transportation provide detailed information on equipment maintenance, stop announcements and route identification.
According to the FTA Topic Guide on Eligibility for ADA Transit, individuals are eligible for paratransit service if they meet one of these three criteria:
- Navigation of the transit system requires assistance
- Inaccessible bus routes or bus stops and individual needs an accessible vehicle
- Travel is prevented if a “reasonable person” with the disability would be deterred from making the trip
For additional information regarding ADA paratransit eligibility, see FTA’s Topic Guides on ADA - Transportation Eligibility for ADA Paratransit.
Are there programs or grant opportunities to help tribal communities improve transportation services?
Yes, there are several programs that fund tribal communities’ transportation needs, including:
Tribal Transit Technical Assistance Program
Available through the Community Transportation Association of America. This program is funded through the Rural Business Cooperative Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is designed to assist tribal communities in enhancing economic growth and development by improving transportation services.
Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS)
This program from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) funds projects to develop community transportation activities that support the needs of the elderly, the disabled, and the local workforce.
Public Transportation on Indian Reservations (Section 5311c)
Available through the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA). Provides planning, capital and operating assistance to designated tribal entities. For more information, contact your regional FTA office.
In addition, the majority of the funding opportunities for general rural transportation projects are applicable for tribal communities.
Are there grants or programs to assist veterans in rural areas with transportation to VA medical centers and other VA and non-VA facilities for medical care?
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program Grants for Transportation of Veterans in Highly Rural Areas awards grants to veterans service organizations that use innovative approaches to assist veterans in rural areas with transportation to VA medical centers and other VA and non-VA facilities for medical care. This grant program accepts proposals frequently throughout the year. For additional programs that may assist veterans in accessing medical care, see RAC’s Access to Healthcare for Rural Veterans Funding & Opportunities.
Also, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Hospital Service Coordinator Directory provides a state-by-state list of Hospital Service Coordinators (HSCs), their affiliated VA Medical Centers, and contact information. HSCs manage DAV transportation programs for Veterans needing medical care.