For Vineyard veterans seeking on-Island access to health care, a long wait is getting longer.

Despite word in January that a contract for health care should be in place by late February, the process has been delayed by administrative roadblocks.

The Veterans Administration is “still shooting for springtime,” for a contract to be in place, said Tom Antonaccio, public affairs officer at the Providence VA center. “I’m still optimistic,” he said.

Almost six years ago, a contract between the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the Veterans Administration to provide health care to Island veterans ran out. Some of the more than 300 veterans on the Island started receiving bills, and others had to venture as far as Providence, R.I., to receive basic health care.

When veterans met last month with Cong. William Keating, state Rep. Tim Madden and state Sen. Dan Wolf, district congressional representative Lance Lambros said he’d been told that contracts between the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the Veterans Administration should be completed by February.

“We were making very good progress on this,” Mr. Antonaccio said this week, but the project has been delayed by a couple of issues that he called “very surmountable,” including the contracting officer’s unforeseen leave of absence. The employee should be back in a few weeks, he said.

A contract still needs to be finalized and sent to either the regional or federal veterans offices for review, Mr. Antonaccio said. After that, it will be available for bidding; though Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is the only hospital on the Island, he said, a bidding process is required by law. After the contract is bid on and the parties agree, it will then be sent back to the regional or federal agency for final approval.

Mr. Antonaccio said he hopes that approving the contracts can be expedited by having them approved “closer to home” at a regional level, instead of being sent to Washington, D.C..

“We still feel we can provide the benefits we told [veterans] we can,” he said, noting that standards and expectations have changed since the contract was last negotiated between the Veterans Administration and the hospital.

“There has been a good level of expediting on this,” Mr. Antonaccio said, adding that it is tough to balance this project with the needs of the other veterans that the agency serves.

“It’s very unfortunate we came to this point, obviously,” he said, but the administration is “continuing to meet our obligations to provide the veterans with care.”

“It does take a process to get it right, when it comes to getting the maximum available care we can provide on the Island.”

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital president and chief executive officer Tim Walsh and director of physician services Jay Ferriter said this week that the hospital is still waiting for the contract from the Veterans Administration, and has yet to see a copy of the agreement.

They said the hospital is completing necessary paperwork for about 13 hospital physicians to receive the appropriate credentials, a process that is nearing completion. Once the applications are in, they said the Veterans Administration will send a team to fingerprint the physicians and complete the process.

“We’ll be able to put [the contract] through right away, unless they throw a curve ball at us,” Mr. Walsh said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ferriter said, “we are seeing any of the folks that need to be seen for non-elective primary care.”

In a statement issued yesterday in response to a query from the Gazette, Cong. Bill Keating’s office said: “The Congressman and his office have been working on this issue since he took office. Currently, the hospital and Providence VA are working on the details of a new service contract. The Congressman’s office has been keeping abreast of the progress of the contract by attending monthly meetings with the Providence VA on this issue. The Congressman and staff are also trying to expedite the contract process by working with the public affairs personnel at the VA. Most importantly, our office has continued to do outreach and have been providing constant updates to the county manager, county officials and Vineyard veterans.”

Dukes County veterans agent Jo Ann Murphy said she was frustrated by the lack of action. “I figured maybe with the three of them [Mr. Keating, Representative Madden, and Senator Wolf], we’d get a little push or something,” she said this week, calling the failure to get a contract in place “very disappointing.”

“It didn’t take this long the first time,” Ms. Murphy said, recalling when the contract was first signed about more than a decade ago. “So what’s the problem?” she said.

A VA clinic in Hyannis provides some services, she said, and veterans can go to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for emergencies. But other services are only reimbursable off-Island.

“Not everybody is able to get off-Island,” Ms. Murphy said. “Our World War II guys are 80, 90 years old, it’s hard for them. It’s just frustrating.”

Former Marine and Viet Nam veteran Woody Williams agreed. “We’re really not much further than we were day one,” said Mr. Williams, who has been a passionate advocate for getting veterans health care back on-Island. He said he wasn’t surprised by the delay. “I knew that was going to happen,” he said. “It’s always been a waiting game.”

“It’s terrible, it’s absolutely terrible,” he said, adding that the insurance coverage should never have lapsed in the first place.

Mr. Williams said he visited the Providence VA hospital twice in the last month, traveling almost three hours each way. “It’s an all-day thing to see the doctor for 10 minutes,” he said.

Regardless, “I’m a Marine,” he said. “I don’t give up. These are earned benefits. We have to continue to fight until we die to get what we deserve.”