Drivers are declining: Lack of volunteers complicates access to care in rural areas

Several times a month, Jim Maybach drives 5 miles from his home in Hay Creek, Minnesota, to the Mississippi River.

Arriving in Red Wing, a town of about 17,000, the 79-year-old retired engineer stops to pick up a senior he’s driving to an appointment, such as a dentist visit or exercise class. When the appointment ends, Maybach is there to take the person home.

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

Maybach is an unpaid, volunteer among a cadre organized by Faith in Action in Red Wing, a nonprofit that relies on retirees to return residents to essential services.

Riders, mostly seniors, who don’t have immediate access to transportation, especially in rural areas where public transit options are limited or non-existent.

Minnesota has several such programs serving rural counties, but, like other services across the country, their existence has become precarious as the number of volunteer drivers has steadily declined, according to transportation advocates. Volunteers either reach a point where they can no longer drive due to age, or the costs associated with their volunteering are no longer sustainable. For decades, Congress has refused to increase the rate at which drivers can be reimbursed.

Experts say that public transit in rural areas is already inadequate and residents of rural communities must travel long distances to access health care, a depleted volunteer driver network would leave seniors with even fewer transportation options and could disrupt their health management. Meanwhile, social service agencies that rely on volunteers have begun limiting their service options and denying ride requests when drivers are unavailable.

One photo shows Jim and Judy Maybach standing together in their car.  The city of Red Wing, Minnesota looms behind them.
Jim and Judy Maybach started driving for Faith in Action in Red Wing after they retired.(Liam James Doyle for KHN)

Recognizing the need for drivers in their communities is often what gets volunteers to sign up in the first place, but with car insurance and gas costs rising, the commitment isn’t the “attractive win-win” it once was, said Frank Dumas, director of urban and regional affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Director of State and Local Policy and Outreach for the Infrastructure Finance Agency.

Volunteers, like Maybach, are eligible for a compensation of 14 cents per mile, which typically doesn’t come close to covering the cost of gas 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 in June, it did not raise the charitable rate because that is covered by Congress and must be set by law. The charity rate was last changed in 1997.

Despite longstanding charity rates, the United Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit that runs a volunteer driving program in southwest Minnesota, has been reimbursing drivers using business rates for years. The program’s administrators did not realize that the IRS could count volunteer reimbursements that exceed the charitable rate as income.

The agency experienced its “first big drop” in the number of volunteer drivers before the Covid-19 pandemic, when it learned about the IRS rule and told the volunteers about the tax implications of higher reimbursement rates, said Shelley Flam, administrator of the driving program.

And although the nonprofit continued to pay back the business rate, remaining drivers were disappointed that as gas prices rose in the spring, the rate was only 58.5 cents per mile, which did not cover gas or maintenance costs.

“When you’re paying about five dollars for gas, it’s not helping anymore,” Pflaum said. “So, there was some concern: ‘What I’m spending to run my vehicle, it’s not reasonable for me anymore – I can’t afford to volunteer’ is basically what it comes down to.”

The IRS business rate bump in June was enough to convince most drivers to stay, but Plum said he lost one volunteer who had been driving for nearly 20 years.

A photo shows Michelle Larson presenting a certificate to Catherine Bonin at a ribbon-cutting ceremony

Michelle Larson, executive director and president of the Red Wing Area Chamber of Commerce, (left) presents Kathryn Bonin, executive director of Faith in Action in Red Wing, with a certificate of membership during a ribbon cutting on Oct. 12, 2022. (Liam James Doyle for KHN)

Judy Maybach (right) and Catherine Bonin speak after a ribbon cutting to celebrate the nonprofit’s certified membership at the Red Wing Area Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 12, 2022. (Liam James Doyle for KHN)

The issue of disparate rates has drawn bipartisan attention in Congress, with the introduction of two bills — both sponsored by Minnesota representatives — that propose raising charitable mileage reimbursement rates to business rates. Similar proposals have been introduced in Congress before and failed.

According to a 2018 study by the Volunteer Driver Coalition, Minnesota had 1,900 volunteers that year who collectively served 77,000 riders.

A constant hurdle that volunteers face is convincing their auto insurers that they are actually volunteers and not drivers for hire like Lyft or Uber drivers. Otherwise, insurers may be forced to purchase more expensive insurance for their commercial ride-hailing drivers.

An AARP Public Policy Institute analysis found that, as of September 2020, seven states had implemented laws barring insurers from denying or canceling insurance or raising rates because the driver is a volunteer. Only two states at the time distinguished for-hire drivers from volunteer drivers in insurance laws.

Last year, Minnesota passed legislation that separated volunteer drivers from drivers for hire. Lawmakers also reduced drivers’ potential in-state tax liability.

In southeast Minnesota, a 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.

“If we had drivers we would allow more, but we don’t want to take drivers on non-medical rides and then have someone go to their doctor’s appointment,” said Semcak operations manager Jessica Schwaring. “There’s more need than we can provide, and it’s getting worse.”

If Semcak cannot arrange a driver for a community member needing a ride, the person must find an alternative, such as a ride from a family member, or find their health insurance provider. Semcac has partnered with certain insurance providers to transport their clients to medical and dental appointments. Not all volunteer driver programs have this structure.

Schwering manages 53 drivers spread over six rural counties. About half of them are in Winona County, about 650-square-miles southeast of Minneapolis along the Mississippi River. He estimates that the average driver is 80 years old.

Schwaring says volunteers who stop driving for her nonprofit often cite medical reasons, such as not being cleared by their doctor.

The average age of volunteers is also a factor in the decline, said Duma of the University of Minnesota. “When the baby boomers were retiring, they were driving people from the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation, who were outnumbered by the baby boomers, so you had more people available to drive for less people,” he said. “But now that the baby boomers are aging, the people who might be best qualified to drive them are Gen X — and that’s a much younger generation.”

One photo shows Jim and Judy Maybach standing on a hill overlooking the town of Red Wing, Minnesota.
Volunteers Jim and Judy Maybach help seniors in Red Wing, Minnesota — a town of about 17,000 people — get appointments.(Liam James Doyle for KHN)

Jim Maybach began driving for Faith in Action in 2011 after retiring. Six years later, his wife Judy, now 78, joined him after retiring from nursing. They have trouble imagining stopping anytime soon.

Still, their volunteer program began planning a new recruitment strategy to bring in many younger, stay-at-home parents.

“We were just trying to think, ‘Well, who else can we get?’” said Kathryn Bonin, executive director of Faith in Action. “Because when we have senior citizens, we’ve shifted some from volunteers to recipients as they get older and their driving ability changes.”

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