Vets call for full-service care in N.H.

NASHUA – For seven straight months, William David Martel Sr., took his brother to daily cancer treatments at a clinic here.

Martel is a U.S. armed services veteran, as was his brother, who subsequently died after a heart attack.

Like other veterans in New Hampshire, Martel welcomes the news that veterans needing a certain type of cancer treatment – radiation therapy – no longer have to drive to Massachusetts to get it under a new Veterans Administration program.

But Martel is among many veterans locally who feel more health services should be available not only in Manchester but also closer to home.

Why should veterans who receive V.A. health services have to drive even as far as Manchester when they could receive chemotherapy or other treatments right here in their backyard, Martel asked.

The larger question veterans posed: Why doesn’t the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs approve the V.A. Medical Center in Manchester as a full-service hospital, broadening the services that the 718 Smyth Road facility could offer to the state’s veterans?

Martel was one of about 20 veterans who gathered Wednesday morning at VFW Post 483 on Quincy Street.

U.S. Sen. John Sununu and Debra Krinsky, an official with the V.A. Medical Center in Manchester, spoke about a new program that allows veterans to receive radiation therapy without having to travel outside the state.

The program has been greeted as good news for veterans who have had to go to Boston or elsewhere because that treatment wasn’t available at the V.A. Medical Center.

Elliott Hospital in Manchester is one of two hospitals in the state that offers radiation therapy, according to Sununu’s staff members. The other is in the Dartmouth area.

The new radiation therapy exception is available only to veterans enrolled in the V.A. health system that pays for such procedures. It’s currently available to veterans whose cancer or other illness requiring radiation was diagnosed as having been a result of their service, such as being exposed to Agent Orange or other chemicals, Krinsky said.

Plans are to make the treatment available to enrolled veterans whose illnesses were not the results of service by the end of next February, she said.

Often, a person needing radiation must receive it over a succession of days. That makes it tough on veterans and family members who have to commute long distances to Boston or elsewhere to V.A. facilities, Sununu said.

Paul Chevalier of Hudson, national inspector general for the VFW, called the change in policy “a great leap forward” and credited Sununu for his work on the issue and on opening veterans outpatient health centers in Berlin and soon in Keene.

However, the ultimate goal is for the Manchester center to become a full-service hospital, Chevalier said.

“We’re making a little bit of progress,” he said. “We’ll continue fighting for the full-service designation.”

In June, James Peake, secretary of the veterans affairs department, met with Sununu and U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

Despite the pleas of the two congressional officials, Peake concluded it wasn’t necessary to restore the full-serve designation that the hospital lost seven years ago. That made New Hampshire one of only three states in the country – Alaska and Hawaii are the other two – without a full-service V.A. hospital.

As a result, some veterans have been forced to travel to V.A. hospitals in Boston or White River Junction, Vt., in order to receive the necessary medical care.

Even homeless veterans in transitional housing program now have to be “shipped” out of state if they require in-service care, according to a couple who run a small housing program for veterans in Manchester.

Bill Zarakotas is program director, and his wife, Judy Zarakotas, a case manager with Liberty House, which recently has partnered with Harbor Homes in Nashua to secure federal money.

Liberty House provides housing for 10 homeless veterans and other services to about 200 more, the Zarakotases said.

Most veterans who need health services are “shipped out” to other locations because of the lack of care for V.A. enrolled veterans in the state, they say.

Judy Zarakotas noted the case of one veteran who suffered from pancreatitis and had to travel frequently to Massachusetts for treatment.

“The ride was killing him because he was in so much pain,” she said.

One young veteran said that four years ago when he returned from Iraq, he spent several weeks in a Bedford, Mass., hospital receiving psychiatric treatment because there was no closer facility.

The distance makes it difficult, particularly for veterans and family members who live farther north in the state, said the veteran, who declined to give his name.

Broader services, including inpatient mental health treatment, should be available to veterans at the state’s V.A. hospital, he said.

“If it’s the only one we’ve got, they should have everything in it,” he said.