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California and the West

Delays Idle State's Vans for Disabled

Aid: Legislator criticizes program, in which vehicles have been warehoused for years awaiting retrofitting.

March 13, 1998|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Thirty-nine new vans intended for severely disabled Californians have sat idle in a Sacramento warehouse--some for more than two years--even though the state has a backlog of applicants for them, a prominent Democratic legislator said Thursday.

Citing a legislative report, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) complained that the Department of Rehabilitation has failed to expeditiously retrofit the vans valued at $860,000 and assign them to severely disabled people who need the vehicles for employment and independent living.

"My objection is that they are sitting there so long" while the department's clients are waiting for transportation, Aroner told reporters at a Capitol news conference after releasing the report by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Government Oversight.

"Eleven of the vans have been assigned to clients, but they are still sitting there," said Aroner, chairwoman of the Assembly Human Resources Committee, which oversees the department. But only one of them, a 3-year-old van, has been retrofitted, she said.

Aroner also criticized the department for storing the vehicles in a warehouse that is unsecured. "This is a simple thing. Put locks on the doors," she said.

The assemblywoman has scheduled a hearing this month on what she sees as the vehicle program's shortcomings.

Department of Rehabilitation officials swiftly responded to Aroner's charges. They defended the stockpiling of vans, saying that it can take up to a year to modify a van and train a disabled driver.

"I don't believe that we have in fact screwed up," said Margaret Lamb, the department's deputy director. She also denied that the warehouse is unlocked.

But Lamb acknowledged that her agency needs "to work toward expediting the process" by which it distributes 25 to 30 vans annually to the disabled.

About 40 to 50 people are being screened for eligibility, and a similar number are awaiting evaluation.

At the heart of the dispute is a little-known program designed to provide some of the department's 80,000 clients with vehicles to get them to jobs and help them live more independent lives.

Department officials describe the process as complex and time-consuming. Under the program, the department approves clients for the vehicles, which are typically purchased by the state at lower fleet prices. In the last five years, 142 vans have been bought.

State officials cited several factors for the delay in getting the vehicles to the disabled. After an applicant is approved, they said, a van must be purchased and outfitted with devices such as hand controls or wheelchair lifts.

Once they are ready--at an average cost of $15,000 to $20,000--the drivers, located throughout the state, must be trained. State officials said the training can take months.

"It's very important to make sure that we do the best job we can before we in fact issue the vans or vehicles to clients," Lamb said.

The dispute can be traced to June, when the fleet of white vans was seen by the owner of a neighboring roller hockey rink. He questioned why the vans were streaming into an empty warehouse rented by the state for $16,000 a year.

The task force report cites a number of potential problems, from loss of warranty protections on the vans to safety issues, including storage of the vehicles with gasoline in their tanks in an enclosed area.

Then there are the human stories of people who need the vans.

In one case cited by the task force, a disabled Bay Area psychotherapist reported that it took her 2 1/2 years to obtain a lift-equipped van. She was provided a 1993 van, purchased by the state for $22,745, but it was not properly equipped. After it was retrofitted, she took possession of the van last fall.

"The whole process was one of the most maddening experiences I've ever had," the report quoted the woman as saying.

Citing confidentiality of individual cases, Lamb declined to discuss the matter.

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