Increasing auto insurance rates, volatile gas prices and rising demand are all making life more challenging for the volunteers who provide cancer patients with rides to their treatment.
The Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society is piecing together its $300,000 annual budget in private donations, which average about $100, and one-time grants from foundations, corporations and city councils of a few thousand dollars at a time, said president Bob Smith, the former CEO of Fraser Health.
In the three years since the Canadian Cancer Society defunded its patient ride program, the Volunteer Cancer Drivers who stepped up in their place have logged one million kilometres and 62,000 hours.
They have done it without a shred of steady funding. The drivers — who pick up patients for treatment, wait, and then deliver them safely home — donate about $50,000 in fuel reimbursements back to the organization to keep it running.
The United Way receives $15 million in provincial funding to deliver the Better at Home program, which includes providing rides to appointments for seniors, often with local non-profit organizations and volunteers.
However, Better at Home regards the Volunteer Cancer Drivers as a form of “medical transportation” rather than just a ride, which makes them ineligible for that funding, according to Smith.
“We don’t provide any clinical care, but we do provide emotional support for people going to treatment like radiation,” said Smith. “It’s a perplexing situation to me. We just want to care for frail and elderly people.”
So, the small army of 175 drivers and 10 volunteer dispatchers could use a financial boost as demand for their service is growing by 25 to 35 per cent a year, said Smith.
Costs are rising, too.
ICBC will increase auto insurance rates by more than six per cent this year and a provincial carbon tax increase April 1 will push B.C.’s dizzying gas prices even higher.
Drivers are required to carry $3 million in personal liability insurance.
Chief fundraiser George Garrett — and his fellow board members — works full-time to keep the money flowing, but he dare not take his foot off the gas.
“I was able to get $30,000 from then-finance minister Mike de Jong to get us started, but since then we’ve had no success with the (provincial government),” said Garrett, a former news broadcaster with CKNW.
The BC Gaming Commission also gave them $30,000 in 2017, but the society really needs ongoing funding to the tune of $20,000 a month to ensure its survival.
A steady source of funding “would make all the difference in the world,” he said. “We’ve been scrambling from day one and I worry all the time.”
With no offices or paid staff, the society applies 95 per cent of every dollar donated to services.
When the Canadian Cancer Society’s driver program was cancelled — citing increasing costs and falling demand — dozens of community groups took on the work of driving cancer patients, many of them with just a few drivers each.
Of the larger organizations, the Freemasons Cancer Car program operates in the Okanagan, on Vancouver Island, and in the City of Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond. The service was launched with $1 million in member donations and continues to be financed by the Freemasons.
The Volunteer Cancer Drivers service operates in 13 municipalities from West Vancouver all the way to Abbotsford.