An Early Peek at 2024 Investigative Reporting — “Do VA-Vendor Disputes get in the way of Veteran Healthcare? Yep — Dangerously So.”

Jerry Ashton
4 min readJan 6, 2024
Colonel (Ret.) Thomas O’Malley, USMC

By Jerry Ashton, founder, End Veteran Debt & co-founder, RIP Medical Debt

Readers who are becoming familiar with End Veteran Debt (EVD) and our determined approach to the VA when bringing attention to possible failures on their part will not find it unusual that I am lofting a shot across their bow once again. But, on behalf of vendors?

Yes, on behalf of vendors — this time the 10,000-plus massage therapists currently helping tens of thousands of veterans with chronic pain, loneliness, opioid addictions, and other ailments. As a former US Navy journalist and now veteran advocate at Veteran Mission Possible, let me share with you how this particular category of VA providers caught my attention, and why veterans and their families should be concerned. Very concerned.

What sparked my interest was a chance meeting last year at a veteran healthcare conference with the Founder and CEO of a technology company called Zeel. Samer Hamadeh was present as a sponsor for New York’s first business incubator for military veterans.

As I learned, his company has spent millions of dollars building a proprietary massage therapy booking and scheduling technology for the VA. By meeting the VA’s rigorous requirements, including an 18-month, 1,000-veteran pilot study, Zeel was greenlighted by the VA’s third-party administrators for the program — Optum and TriWest — to deliver their service. They have done this successfully since July 2021.

So, what’s the problem?

Simply, after their considerable effort and financial investment, and signing onto a compensation plan that enabled Zeel (and all other approved massage therapists) to eke out a profit, the VA at some point unilaterally decided to reconsider the agreement the therapists had with Optum and TriWest as administrators and change it. Essentially, the VA reduced payments by almost a third to all therapists in the program.

What’s a few dollars here and there, eh?

Monstrous, considering organizations such as Zeel that deploy hundreds of therapists weekly to deliver thousands of massages. Money is lost on every visit. Unsustainable! Sooner or later, I imagine that these vendors will be forced to walk away from this situation.

What was the VA thinking?

What in the world could have motivated this move? I can’t come up with anything other than bureaucratic cost-cutting. That’s where my anger kicks in. This doesn’t serve the veteran. It doesn’t serve the VA. It doesn’t serve us as taxpayers — the people who care for our warriors. All of us should be angry.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in 2023 had roughly $300 Billion in budgetary resources. Its 2024 budget of $325 Billion reportedly will provide “robust funding for the Secretary’s top priorities.”

Given the way that massage therapists are being treated, along with the veterans whose bodies they are healing without deadly opioids or expensive, invasive surgeries, it appears that healthcare as impactful as this program is not among Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Budget Andrew R McIlroy’s top priorities.

Everything has consequences

If all the vendors in this or any other field of caregiving are forced to abandon their work with veterans because of this sort of ill-considered or uncaring treatment, the effects could be tragic — in so many ways, and for everyone involved.

The VA has trumpeted its desire to improve efforts to prevent veteran suicide. A “top priority,” to be exact — to the tune of $16.6 billion in 2024 for mental health efforts, including suicide prevention outreach programs. Has anyone at the VA connected the dots to realize that loneliness itself is a social determinant of depression, even suicidal ideation? A circumstance that can be mitigated by a visit from someone with healing hands?

Massage Magazine in May 2023 lauded Zeel’s Massage for Veterans Program. It confirmed Zeel’s status as a Community Care Provider and commended its role in being a very visible part of the VA’s commitment to tens of thousands of veterans living in pain.

95% Pain Reduction!

“The VA has, for more than a decade, made various complementary and integrative therapies available to veterans, alongside Western medical care, but the new approach by Zeel promises to bring healthy touch to veterans on a much larger scale,” the magazine reported.

According to the article, amazing statistics came out of the VA-required 18-month pilot I mentioned above. Below are the outcomes created through 300 of Zeel’s massage therapists who performed 20,000 sessions with VA-selected vets.

*95% reported pain reduction.

*87% reported stress reduction

*50% reported reducing their intake of over-the-counter pain meds

*42% reported reducing or eliminating their prescribed pain medication.

The last statistic should cause your jaw to drop, given the level of drug abuse in the vet community. Freeing vets from drug dependency…itself a social determinant of suicide… is heartening. The VA must have been impressed, as the program was given the green light to expand nationwide in March 2023. But, with this latest payment reduction, that green light is beginning to dim yellow.

Cya mid-January for my follow-up article.

Want to hang in there with me as I deep-dive this issue and ferret out more details? Just bookmark this page or go to End Veteran Debt and subscribe to our newspaper Now Hear This.

Better yet, write me:, and let’s put our heads together on this.



Jerry Ashton

Navy Journalist veteran, co-founder and founder of the charities RIP Medical Debt and End Veteran Debt — co-creator of Let's Rethink This and "Impact Awareness"