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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
  • 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?

The following organizations provide resources and technical assistance related to rural transportation projects:

  • Community Transportation Association of America
    Provides a wide variety of information on economic development, financing, technical assistance, and other issues related to rural and urban public and community transportation. Offers the Health Care and Transportation Resource Center, which includes resources, policy updates, and information focusing on the issues, opportunities and challenges impacting non-emergency medical transportation professionals.
  • 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. Offers a National Transit Resource Center with access to information and expertise, and an online list of state RTAP contacts.
  • National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC)
    A cooperative agreement supported by Easterseals, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Federal Transit Administration, and assisted by the Administration for Community Living. NADTC provides communities technical assistance, training, information and referral, and community grants focused on the availability and accessibility of transportation for seniors and people with disabilities.
  • National Center for Mobility Management (NCMM)
    Provides technical assistance, training, community grants, and helps communities implement transportation policies and mobility opportunities that enable people to live independently, as well as promote health, economic vitality, and self-sufficiency. Funded through a cooperative agreement with the Federal Transit Administration, and is operated through a consortium of three national organizations, the Community Transportation Association of America, the American Public Transportation Association, and Easterseals.

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:

What are the health-related consequences of not having transportation for rural residents, including the elderly and people with disabilities?

Reliable transportation options can determine whether many people in rural areas have access to healthcare at all. Often elderly individuals and individuals with disabilities have greater healthcare needs than other rural residents, and living in rural areas isolated from healthcare providers can have a significant impact on their quality of life, their health, and their safety.

According to a 2010 study from the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, some of the negative impacts due to distance and lack of transportation include:

  • 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 affect 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 providing transportation for medical treatment to low-income, elderly, and disabled patients is cost-effective and improves the quality of life. A 2005 study by the Transit Cooperative Research Program 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 the 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 residents decreases hospitalizations and nursing home stays, allowing them to remain contributing members of the community and lead healthier lives while keeping health costs down. In addition, transportation allows rural residents to avoid social isolation, as discussed in the Rural Monitor article, Social Isolation and Loneliness: Insights from Rural Clinical Providers and Other Experts.

What strategies can rural communities and healthcare facilities use to provide non-emergency medical transportation services?

According to a 2010 study funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA):

“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 strategies for communities who have some kind of transportation service available include:

  • Hiring a mobility manager 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 the vehicle is near rider location
  • Broadly disseminating information about the availability of transit services

In some communities where formal transportation services are not available or are insufficient, 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

Examples of non-emergency transportation programs in rural areas include:

  • HealthTran – A non-emergency transportation service that offers rides for patients demonstrating a transportation need for timely primary and preventive care access in South Central Missouri. HealthTran was also profiled in a 2016 Rural Monitor article.
  • Angel Flight West – A network of more than 1,400 pilots donate their skills, aircraft, and all costs associated with flying to help families and individuals in need in the 13 western states of the United States. Angel Flight West was one of several charity flight services highlighted in a 2018 Rural Monitor article.
  • Tri-Valley Opportunity Council Rural Transportation – A coordinated public transportation and volunteer driver system which serves a rural 8-county area in northwest Minnesota.

For more information on the development of rural transportation programs, see the Rural Transportation Toolkit.

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.
  • Liability concerns
    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 National Volunteer Transportation Center Map of Volunteer Driver Programs and the National Volunteer Transportation Center Resource Library.

Can Medicaid be used to subsidize non-emergency medical transportation?

Yes. 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 the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation’s Medicaid Benefits: Non-Emergency Medical Transportation Services.

For further information on this rule, see the following resources:

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 in 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, provides assistance with the development of small businesses that could include a non-emergency medical transportation business.

Examples of transportation models that address the transportation inequities of elderly and low-income individuals in rural communities include:

  • SMiles Senior Transportation – SMiles was implemented in Blount County, Tennessee to provide transportation to rural seniors who are no longer able to drive.
  • Kid One Transport – Provides rides to medical appointments for children and expectant mothers who otherwise have no other means of transportation in rural Alabama.

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 fixed-route 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, shuttle, or ride-share, or any form of demand-response transportation, ADA regulations will apply and servicers are required to provide 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 section Eligibility for ADA Paratransit, individuals are eligible for paratransit service if they meet one of these criteria:

  • Navigation of the transit system requires assistance
  • Individual needs an accessible vehicle
  • Bus routes or bus stops are inaccessible
  • Travel is prevented if a “reasonable person” with the disability would be deterred from making the trip

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 to 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, Highly Rural Transportation Grants (HRTG), 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. For information about this program and other programs that may assist veterans in accessing medical care, see RHIhub’s Rural Veterans and Access to Healthcare – 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.

Last Reviewed: 4/24/2020