By Sen. Susan Collins
Our nation owes American veterans an enormous debt, one that can never truly be repaid. Honoring our commitment to those who served our nation in uniform involves continuing to support them when they return home and meeting the needs of veterans who are disabled.
I recently introduced a bill with Sen. Joe Manchin (D–West Virginia) that would make a positive difference in the lives of disabled veterans who require adaptive modification of their vehicles long after they are discharged or retire from active duty.
The bipartisan Advancing Uniform Transportation Opportunities (AUTO) for Veterans Act would make these veterans eligible to receive a grant to help purchase a new adaptive vehicle once every ten years, helping them to drive safely and maintain their independence. This is especially important for states such as Maine, where many veterans live in rural communities and must travel for some of the health care they have earned through their service.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is currently authorized to provide eligible veterans with a one-time grant of approximately $21,400 to be used to purchase a new or used automobile and necessary adaptive equipment, such as specialized pedals or switches. The grant is often used together with the VA Special Adaptive Equipment Grants, which help veterans purchase adaptive equipment, such as powered lifts, for an existing automobile or van to make it safe for a veteran’s use. The Department of Transportation estimates that the average cost to replace modified vehicles ranges from $20,000 to $80,000 when the vehicle is new.
Although veterans can receive multiple Special Adaptive Equipment Grants over the course of their lives, they currently are limited to a single grant to purchase a vehicle. The AUTO for Veterans Act addresses this limitation, which fails to take into account that a disabled veteran may need more than one vehicle in his or her lifetime.
According to the Department of Transportation, the average age of a household vehicle is 11.8 years, and a vehicle that has been modified structurally tends to have a shorter useful life. The Disabled American Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the VFW and the Fleet Reserve Association endorse AUTO for Veterans. These veteran organizations find that the substantial costs of modified vehicles, coupled with inflation, present a significant financial hardship for many disabled veterans who need to replace their primary mode of transportation once their car, or van, or truck reaches the end of its lifespan.
A Maine veteran whom I know well, Neal Williams of Shirley, used a VA automobile grant in 1999 to purchase an adaptive vehicle, a Ford Econoline van. He also had to purchase several adaptive vehicles since 1999, with each one lasting more than 250,000 miles until they simply were no longer roadworthy. His current vehicle now has more than 100,000 miles and soon he will need a new one. He told me that purchasing a new van will cost him well over $50,000, which is more than he paid for his home. The AUTO for Veterans Act will relieve him—as well as many veterans throughout the country who need to purchase expensive adaptive vehicles in order to drive safely or to drive at all—of an enormous burden.
Susan Collins is Maine’s senior U.S. senator.