WILLMAR -- At least three or four times a week Maury Ferden uses his personal vehicle to drive Kandiyohi County residents to medical appointments.
Those trips may be to Willmar, St. Cloud, the Twin Cities or Rochester and involve hundreds of miles and hours of time transporting people who have no other way to the doctor.
Some weeks Ferden makes five or six trips, and during one stretch, he provided rides 14 days in a row.
But the New London man said he loves what he's doing because he gets to spend time with "peaches and cream people."
It's the "one government program that makes a lot of sense," he said.
But a new state interpretation of the federally funded program has local entities worried about potential consequences and now scrambling to keep the program intact.
"It's a wonderful, vital program and we have to keep it going," said Jay Kieft, Kandiyohi County Family Services director. "We can't afford to lose this system."
Tiffany Collins, director for the Kandiyohi Area Transit system, said the program "provides accessibility for people living in rural areas to get to medical appointments who do not have other forms of transportation."
While the program involves drivers who volunteer their time, service and vehicles, drivers have always received a mileage reimbursement, funded by medical assistance. The current rate is 50 cents a mile.
In the past, Minnesota volunteer drivers were reimbursed for so-called "no-load miles" -- legs of the trip when the patient was not in the vehicle.
A bulletin issued Jan. 13 by the Minnesota Department of Human Services said no-load miles will no longer receive a reimbursement.
The new ruling affects all volunteer driver programs in the state.
KAT is in the process of examining past records to determine how many no-load miles its 10 volunteer drivers log in a given year to discover the financial impact of the reimbursement disappearing, Collins said.
KAT and Kandiyohi County Family Services will then search for ways to replace the funding for its drivers, said Kieft.
At first glance, not reimbursing drivers for miles when the client is not in the vehicle could make sense, Collins said. But a closer look at how the program really works show otherwise.
She gives the example of a volunteer driver from New London taking a Willmar resident to the Twin Cities for an appointment. After waiting four to six hours while the client is being examined, the driver then learns the patient is being kept overnight for more tests. The driver returns home and goes back to the Twin Cities the next day to pick up the patient.
Under that scenario, the driver would not be reimbursed for about 200 miles of the overall trip.
That equates to about $100 in fuel and auto expenses the volunteer would simply have to absorb.
Kieft said the volunteers are "passionate" about the program and "deliver fantastic service" to individuals and the community but cannot be expected to lose money.
Collins said drivers, who go to the remote rural corners of the county to pick up people, will also no longer be paid to drive from their own homes to the house of the client.
"The unloaded miles do add up," said Collins, who is worried that drivers like Ferden -- who has served as a volunteer driver for six years for the Kandiyohi Area Transit system and 10 years prior to that with Prairie 5 Rides in Montevideo -- will not financially be able to provide the service anymore.
"They are volunteers that spend a lot of their own time to help these folks get to these medical appointments," Collins said. They're "filling basic needs" for people who don't have alternative transportation.
Collins said 30 to 40 clients a month utilize the volunteer driver program.