Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District Director Tim Niejadlik (left) explains the telehealth access room to a municipal official from Colrain during a June 21 open house.

In an effort to improve health care options for local veterans, the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District has opened a new telehealth access location at its Resource and Referral Center in Greenfield.

A private room furnished with a computer and video conferencing equipment is available to veterans to meet virtually with their U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care providers. The district launched the program in collaboration with the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, with a June 21 open house for clients and municipal officials.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said she believes the telehealth location successfully replicates the privacy of an in-person visit.

“Certainly the people that came in to see it were very happy that it was there and impressed with the fact that they had gone to such great lengths to make it a private setting,” Wedegartner said.

Prior to the opening of the telehealth location, veterans in the 26 towns of Franklin County would have to travel long distances to access VA medical services. The nearest inpatient VA medical center is located in neighboring Hampshire County.

Telehealth services offer a convenient alternative, but Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District Director Tim Niejadlik said many veterans in western Massachusetts lack the technology and skillset to facilitate telehealth appointments from their own homes.

The telehealth access location — the first of its kind in Massachusetts, according to Niejadlik — is designed to address these challenges. Staff at the Resource and Referral Center are on hand to help veterans set up an email account for video conferencing, reserve the telehealth location once a VA telehealth appointment has been scheduled, and use video conferencing software. Volunteers from Disabled American Veterans are available to drive veterans to the center for appointments.

In its first week and a half of operation, the telehealth access location was reserved three times, according to Niejadlik.

Niejadlik worked directly with the Department of Veterans Affairs to bring plans for the location to fruition. Over the course of two-and-a-half months, the VA helped Niejadlik and his staff develop a memorandum of agreement, navigate COVID safety protocols, and secure equipment.

“In the end it really didn’t cost anything,” Niejadlik said. “The VA donated the cameras. The VA donated some headsets. We got some speakers donated, so we just had to use some available space [at the Resource and Referral Center] that we changed from an employee break room into this telehealth center.”

Wedegartner said the collaboration between the VA and the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District “is a great example of local and federal government working together to really satisfy a need.”

Niejadlik said the Resource and Referral Center has “eliminated any barriers” that might prevent veterans from enjoying the benefits of telehealth. He hopes to eventually offer telehealth services at the center’s satellite locations throughout Franklin County, and even bring telehealth equipment into veterans’ homes.

For municipalities interested in implementing a similar program, Niejadlik encouraged local officials to involve the Department of Veterans Affairs as early as possible.

He said the memorandum of agreement “that we drew up is going to be the guideline for any of the other VA facilities or towns throughout New England that are looking to do something like this.”

Niejadlik called the telehealth access location an essential step in the district’s efforts to stay “ahead of the curve and provide new services.” He said the initiative shows that “your veterans’ service officer isn’t just here to do a parade at Memorial Day. There’s so much more that we’re trying to do for the veterans and their community.”

Written by Emanne Khan