Gloria Bunch called “cabulance” to take her from a nursing home to a doctor’s office in Oak Harbor.

She’s temporarily confined to a wheelchair and needs skillful handling.

“I broke both of my ankles and can’t get into a car. I’d have been stuck for a ride if it were not for cabulance,” Bunch said.

The cabulance, a specially-equipped van from Whidbey General Hospital, typically gives patients rides home from the hospital after discharge. The van is equipped with a ramp to load wheelchairs and scooters.

Whidbey General has expanded service to offer transportation to medically-fragile people from their homes or nursing facilities.

The need became apparent when the hospital started operating cabulance earlier this year. The service expansion is intended to augment and not compete with existing transportation services.

“We are bridging a gap between paratransit and taxi service,” said Kathleen Baxter, patient care manager for Whidbey General Hospital.

Trips could include visiting a dentist, therapist, podiatrist or transportation to kidney dialysis treatment. Service also is available to take medically fragile people from care centers to home visits with family members.

The three cabulance drivers are all trained in CPR and First Aid. The van comes equipped with availability of a reclining wheelchair and ability to carry oxygen.

Most folks will have to dig into their own pockets to pay for a ride as medical insurance and Medicare do not cover non-emergency medical transportation, Baxter said. However, transportation for those who are eligible for Medicaid through the Department of Health and Human Services may find their transportation covered.

The basic pickup rate is $30 plus $2.75 cents per mile. Transportation to appointments is available 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Cabulance service is available around the clock, seven days a week, to take patients from the hospital or transfer between nursing homes. Reservations for transportation to medical appointments must be made 24 hours in advance so they can be worked into the hospital schedule, Baxter said.

Baxter calls Gary Taylor the “driving force” of cabulance. Taylor helped set up the service and is one of the three drivers.

Taylor said cabulance is available island-wide. He said if roundtrip service is required, such as to a doctor’s office, the driver usually drops off the rider and handles another call to maximize efficiency.

The feedback on cabulance has been enthusiastically supportive since the van went into service in February, Taylor said.

The 2004 Dodge Sprinter van cost about $45,000, with $22,500 contributed by the Whidbey General Hospital Foundation.

Doug Bishop, the hospital’s chief financial officer, said operating and staffing the van is expected to cost about $50,000 per year.

“It’s early yet for cabulance, and it will surely take time to get the word out and establish the service, but it’s expected to become self-supporting,” Bishop said.

Whidbey General initiated the van service when it started operating under the federal designation of a “Critical Access” hospital, which allows for higher reimbursement rates for treating Medicare patients.

The designation also comes with a lot of rules that include close scrutiny of patients to ensure their medical condition requires the expense of hospitalization. As a result, hospital staff closely monitor patients to ensure timely discharge to either their own homes or to nursing care facilities.

Before cabulance was available, it could take all day for a nurse to arrange transportation for a patient with a wheelchair or scooter, Baxter said.

Now that wider service is available Whidbey General staff hope it will help fill people’s special transportation needs.

“It will provide a great service if we can expand it into the community,” Baxter said.

For more information about scheduling a ride on cabulance, call 678-7656, extension 3020.

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