Saturday February 2, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- Louise Cheeney has put 25,000 miles on her car since she got it.

That was in April.

But the registered nurse with Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire is one of 15 staff members the agency has equipped with vehicles and now has a brand-new set of wheels for professional and personal use.

The VNAVNH recently decided to take out 36-month leases on 15 cars for its employees and held a launch for seven of them at Bellows Falls on Thursday. The other eight were launched at the agency’s West Lebanon, N.H., location on Wednesday.

"I’m very excited. My car is tired and wants to rest in the driveway," Cheeney said with a laugh Thursday.

Shelia Aubin, the vice president of clinical operations for VNAVNH, said the fleet of 2013 Nissan Versas are part of a pilot program the agency started for the benefit of staff members and patients. DGI-Invisuals, of Billerica, Mass., contributed in the design and decorative wrapping of the vehicles, according to a statement.

"We began this project because we have such a large geographic area, we have to get our clinicians to the patients so one of the challenges is, of course, their vehicle to get them to their patients," Aubin said on the cold and windy Thursday behind the Rockingham Medical Group, which houses VNAVNH offices. "Right now in the agency, our staff is traveling 1.5 million miles every year. The average staff person is traveling about 500 miles a week and, obviously, it goes up and down from there."

Each of the 15 staff members assigned a vehicle will also be given two company debit cards -- one to cover gas and the other to take care of mechanical repairs and car washes. Hogan said more cars will likely be added to the fleet in the future.

All will be asked to pay $50 a month for personal usage. The vehicles were offered to staff members who travel in the most rural areas.

"I can start my day anywhere," Cheeney said. "I won’t be receiving mileage, because I’ll have the gas card for free gas instead, but I will start my day anywhere in my route. We used to try to start close to home and make a big circle. Now I can start way far away and work my way home."

After speaking with reporters, Cheeney got behind the wheel of her new ride -- which she called "Lucky No. 13" -- and pulled out of its parking spot before taking a brief drive around the lot to break it in.

Carol Barry, a registered nurse who has worked for VNAVNH for nearly 15 years, arrived a little later but made sure to check out and admire her new vehicle.

"We put so much mileage on our cars, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful thing the VNA is doing," she said, adding that she averages 125 miles a day.

Aubin said she and Catherine Hogan, director of development and marketing, started hearing complaints from staff members who were putting many miles on their vehicles. They said some have had to reschedule appointments due to mechanical problems caused by excessive mileage. The agency has about 100 staff members, including registered nurses, therapists, hospice workers and social workers.

The VNAVNH services 6,000 patients a year and covers a 4,000-square-foot area along the Connecticut River, from the Montpelier area to just across the Massachusetts border.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.