A U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs program intended to create better access to health care for veterans in remote locations, including on Martha’s Vineyard, has instead left them angry and frustrated.

The Veteran’s Choice program allows veterans in locations where access to VA facilities is difficult to get medical care from the private sector. The VA does not deliver the care directly, but contracts with the private company HealthNet, which administers the program for the eastern United States. At a meeting Tuesday afternoon, Island veterans and VA officials cited numerous examples where trying to navigate the HealthNet system has become a bureaucratic nightmare.

Susan MacKenzie, director of the VA’s Providence medical center, Lisa Felix, assistant chief of patient services, and public affairs officer Win Danielson 3rd traveled to the Vineyard to meet with veterans concerned about their medical care. Also attending the meeting at the American Legion hall in Vineyard Haven was Dr. Monty VanBeber from the VA’s Hyannis clinic. Dr. VanBeber travels to the Island once a month to provide medical care to Island veterans.

About 30 Island veterans also attended.

The Veterans Choice program was enacted by Congress last year following a series of revelations about problems with VA programs, including extraordinarily long waits for appointments or medical procedures. The new program allows veterans to bypass the VA system and get private medical care if they have waited more than 30 days for VA services, or if travel to the nearest VA facility is a hardship. The act specifically cites travel over water as a hardship, so every veteran on the Island is eligible to participate. “Congress’s reason for doing this is to give veterans a choice,” Ms. MacKenzie said. “You can (get medical care) through the VA system, like many of you have been, or you can choose to go to the private sector, and get care.” But many said using the program is difficult, recounting stories of getting lost in the bureaucracy. Several Island veterans said they obtained a Veterans Choice card and material in the mail, but were later told they were not eligible. There were stories of calls not returned, appointments made for urgent care at a VA medical center in Vermont, and help lines only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “I’m frustrated,” said Bill Stafursky. “We’re unique. Is this going to be a benefit to me?” Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel asked the VA representatives about accountability for the private contractor. “Are they being monitored, and what accountability are they held to,” he said. “Without accountability, they’re going to try and pass over as many people as they possibly can, because it costs no money.”

Woody Williams, a veteran, was also frustrated and doubted whether the problems can be solved.

“This is not working at all,” Mr. Williams said. “You can call Veterans Choice, and you’re going to have to jump through 100,000 hoops. It took me almost two months to get my surgery squared away, and then I found out by word of mouth, no documentation, no hard copy, I was approved for surgery two days before. When you first call those numbers, nothing works at all.”

“I agree with you,” Ms. MacKenzie said. “I’m on your side, I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s what we’re being forced to use. We’re trying to make the best of it.”

VA officials confirmed their contractor is not performing as expected, or as required by contract. Ms. MacKenzie said in some cases, authorization for an appointment is being sent after the date of the appointment.

“They need to schedule you within five days, and we know that’s not happening,” said Ms. Felix.

Ms. MacKenzie stressed that nothing has changed with the current VA arrangement on the Vineyard. Veterans can still see Martha’s Vineyard Hospital doctors, or see Dr. VanBeber when he comes to the Island, just as they did before.

If they elect to use Veterans Choice, they are required to call HealthNet for pre-authorization and must see a health care provider in their network. But that process has not gone smoothly, according to veterans and VA officials alike. Dr. VanBeber told the Island veterans to expect problems with services such as X-rays and lab tests, because many routine service providers are not yet affiliated with HealthNet. But they said doctors at the Vineyard hospital are already affiliated with HealthNet and can accept patients through the Veterans Choice program.

“Our goal here today is to run interference,” said Ms. MacKenzie.

She urged veterans to call the VA first, and said a VA advocate could participate in a three-way phone call with HealthNet representatives.

“We know the right questions to ask, and then we have a record of you calling,” Ms. Felix said. “We’re here to help advocate for you, and help you get through the system.”

The VA officials said HealthNet has hired 300 new employees to address the issues, and the VA has hired its own additional staff to help with problems.

Later, Dukes County veterans agent Jo Ann Murphy said the meeting provided few answers. “I think it was very frustrating,” Ms. Murphy said. “Why would I sign up for this? I think there are a lot of problems with it. People are used to doing things a certain way, especially our older veterans, and they are going to get frustrated.”

Brad Kieffer, a spokesman for HealthNet, said later in an email to the Gazette that the company is working to be responsive to the problem. “When we are made aware of specific situations, we take action on behalf of veterans. Additionally, we are working closely with VA to improve satisfaction levels and to educate both veterans and health care providers about the Veterans Choice program,” he wrote.