Tuesday, May 8, 2007 | 7:38 a.m.
Donny Fisher learned the hard way on Monday that the company that shuttles patients for free from one Veterans Affairs clinic to another in the Las Vegas Valley has abruptly quit, saying it is owed nearly $600,000 from the federal government.
Fisher is one of about 300 people who during typical week climb aboard a shuttle van to get to VA appointments. Everyone knows the drill: The vans make a stop along the circuit every 15 minutes or so.
On Monday Fisher had to wait about 40 minutes for a ride - and this time, in a van driven by a VA employee who was quickly pressed into service.
But Fisher didn't complain.
"If the VA owed me that much money I'd do the same thing," said Fisher, 54, a disabled Air Force veteran. He was squatting against the wall of the VA clinic on West Owens Avenue, enjoying a small patch of shade just out of reach of the midday sun.
Until Friday, the shuttle service among the five primary VA satellite clinics had been operated by Keecorp of Ogden, Utah. But at noon Friday, with no promise of back payment, owner Jeremy Kee pulled his vans off the routes - making good on a threat to the regional office that he was going to suspend service.
Kee said last-ditch negotiations on Monday with the VA regional office in Long Beach, Calif., to get him his money proved fruitless. He called his four vans home Monday afternoon and said he has no intention of returning.
"I can't make payroll to provide the service," Kee said. "I'm done in Las Vegas."
He said he plans to file Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy and keep fighting the government for the money he is owed.
Kee, whose eight-year-old company got the local VA shuttle contract in 2003, says a 2004 bank error led to the VA paying $586,711 to the wrong party.
He said he has gotten regular reimbursement from the VA since , but none of the back money.
Kee says he can no longer hold off creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service, which Kee says wants $90,000 in back taxes on the VA money he never received.
Local VA officials say they were taken off guard by the halted service.
Las Vegas VA spokesman David Martinez said one of Kee's drivers notified the local office of the stoppage a little before noon Friday. He said motor pool maintenance workers and others with driving experience have been pressed into service as replacement drivers.
Martinez said the VA will continue to serve the Keecorp route with substitute drivers and vehicles until the VA regional office in Long Beach reaches a solution. The Sun's calls to VA officials in Long Beach were not immediately returned.
"I suppose I am being painted as the bad guy in all of this," Kee said. "I am very regretful that as a small disadvantaged business I was forced to take this measure."
Keecorp also operates airport shuttle buses and contract bus service in Salt Lake City and Ogden, and runs shuttles to Utah ski resorts.
In Las Vegas, Keecorp ran a shuttle route with stops at the VA North Clinic, 916 W. Owens Ave.; VA West, 630 S. Rancho Drive; VA East, 3131 La Canada St.; VA Southwest, 4187 S. Pecos Road; and the Mike O'Callaghan Federal Hospital at Nellis Air Force Base.
Those sites each have specialty services not available at all of the area's 13 VA satellite clinics. Fisher and other veterans often schedule treatments at different clinics on the same day for the sake of convenience, and rely on the shuttle .
Ke ecorp did not provide a home-to-clinic service.
Other local veterans say, given the VA's not-so-glowing track record, they do not doubt that a small shuttle vendor business was shortchanged.
"The VA should have seen this coming and should have done a better job warning veterans," Steve Wilson, 60, a Vietnam Army veteran said outside of the VA East Clinic on Monday.
He and his brother Bill said , last Friday afternoon , they saw a regular shuttle user trying to bum a ride at another clinic when the shuttle didn't show .
"The guy was obviously stranded," said Bill Wilson, 69, an Air Force veteran . "He just seemed so lost."
Al Dotson, a Navy veteran from Pahrump who also was at VA East on Monday, said allowing such a vital service to be lost for alleged lack of payment is typical of the VA .
"Their attitude is that we should be grateful and not complain about things like this because we get so many services for free," Dotson said. "The problem with that is these things are not free. We earned them long ago."