The following letter was sent to Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, director of the VA New England Health Care System.

We are writing to you today in the hopes that we can begin a discussion to address the urgent needs of a population of Massachusetts veterans who are struggling with access to quality health services in a practical and safe manner.

Recently we visited with groups of veterans and municipal offices on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. While these men and women are proud of their service to our nation and appreciative of the great benefits they receive from both federal and state agencies, there are certain unique challenges to accessing those benefits due to the isolation of the Islands and the limited options for affordable and timely travel to the mainland.

In the case of Martha’s Vineyard, in 2012 the New England VA Health Care System executed a contract with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to provide a range of primary care and lab services to eligible veterans. However, for specialty care and non-life threatening emergency services, veterans are still required to travel to either the Hyannis community-based outpatient clinic or the VA medical center in Providence, R.I. A VA physician travels to Martha’s Vineyard once a month to see patients at the hospital.

In the case of Nantucket, the Nantucket Cottage Hospital does not have a contract for services with NEHS and most VA eligible veterans on that island reported that they need to receive all health care services in Hyannis or Providence, unless it is a matter of life or death. Many of the veterans on the Islands are seniors, disabled and/or on fixed incomes. In addition to the inconvenience, the cost of travel on ferry or plane is prohibitively expensive, especially since they need additional transportation to Hyannis or Providence from the ferry terminal on the mainland. Also, for serious but not life threatening injuries that require emergency care, the current arrangement is not practical as the ferry is weather dependent, does not run on a 24-hour basis and takes 45 minutes from Martha’s Vineyard and over two hours from Nantucket just to reach the mainland. The accompanying ride to Hyannis or Providence can be significant in terms of time, especially during the summer months. Both of us are statutorily charged with ensuring the well being and care of all Massachusetts veterans and ensuring the public health needs of the citizens of this commonwealth are met. In this official capacity we are asking you to examine this situation and assess the challenges and gaps associated with VA eligible veterans from the Islands accessing quality health care and medical services. Should you discover that gaps or obstacles exist, we further urge you to make all possible efforts to establish NEHS contracts with local health care providers on the Islands for primary care, emergency services and as many mental health and specialty care health services as are practical and possible.

Massachusetts takes great pride in its status as a national leader in providing our veterans with the resources and benefits they need to live full and productive lives. We recognize the important contribution that VA makes toward this effort and we value the strong partnership that exists between VA and the commonwealth in caring for our veterans. We hope to work collaboratively in this instance to address these concerns and met the needs of those who have served and protected our great nation in uniform.

Coleman Nee, Secretary VA Services

Cheryl Bartlett,Health Commissioner