A photo of a military veteran in uniform, seated in a wheelchair, is used to illustrate the concept of massage therapy for veterans.

The Veterans Administration Community Care program has approved Zeel in order to connect massage therapists with military veterans. Zeel is now recruiting massage therapists from across the nation for its Massage for Veterans program.

“Massage is Incredible”

One day while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Donald Deleskiewicz, a lance corporal, slipped while climbing into a tank. He fell and landed on his tailbone, or coccyx, an accident that led to years of chronic lower-back pain. Over the 30-plus years since he retired from the military, Deleskiewicz has pursued various treatments, including radio frequency, ablation, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxers—but none of them relieved his pain.

It wasn’t until Deleskiewicz began receiving massage therapy that he felt real relief. Massage, he said, has improved his flexibility, alleviated his chronic pain and allowed him to reduce his use of NSAIDs. 

Donald Deleskiewicz
Donald Deleskiewicz

“Nothing has done what massage has done for me, it’s incredible,” he told MASSAGE Magazine. “I never would have imagined it. It’s helped with my movement and helps with the pain a great deal. I’m extremely grateful to the VA for offering this to me.” 

Deleskiewicz receives massage through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) Community Care program—and more specifically, by coordinating sessions through Zeel’s Massage for Veterans Program.

Zee has been approved by the VA as a Community Care Provider in order to connect massage therapists with the millions of military veterans who have been living with pain since leaving the service. Zeel is now recruiting massage therapists from across the nation to work with veterans. 

95% Pain Reduction

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 65% of our 16.5 million veterans live with chronic pain—one factor that has fueled opioid abuse, addiction and overdose among veterans. From 2010 to 2016, 6,485 veterans died from opioid overdose. Mortality rates from overdose increased by 53% from 2010 to 2019 among veterans.

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 much larger scale.

Zeel’s massage therapy program emerged from its pilot stage with impressive figures related to pain relief and compliance, said Samer Hamadeh, who co-founded Zeel with his spouse, Alison Harmelin, in 2010 and is the company’s CEO. Harmelin is Zeel’s chief brand officer.

The pilot phase stretched over 18 months, during which time about 300 massage therapists performed 20,000 sessions. The results of the data crunched by Zeel’s analysts and presented to the VA show that among the veterans who received massage through the VA via Zeel.

• 95% reported pain reduction 

• 87% reported stress reduction 

• 50% reported reducing their intake of over-the-counter pain medications 

• 42% reported reducing or eliminating their prescribed opioid pain medication 

The VA’s Community Care Program provides eligible veterans access to health care services outside of VA facilities. The program was established as part of the VA MISSION Act of 2018 and aims to increase veterans’ access to health care by allowing them to receive care from private providers in their local communities. 

To access community care, veterans must first be enrolled in VA health care and receive a referral from their VA health care provider. Veterans can then choose from a network of approved community providers or work with VA staff to find a provider that meets their needs. 

Massage therapy is prescribed to veterans for musculoskeletal pain, said Hamadeh, with 54% of prescriptions written for lower back pain and 21% of prescriptions for neck pain, with shoulder and knee pain, fibromyalgia and migraine among other conditions for which VA physicians write massage prescriptions. 

Technology Makes the Difference

The Zeel app matches massage therapists with clients. By far, most massage therapists who contract with Zeel provide sessions in veterans’ homes, resulting, said Hamadeh, in 83% of veterans completing their 12-massage prescription.

As a comparison, he said a VA representative told him veterans’ compliance rate with physical therapy appointments is under 40%. (The VA was contacted for an interview for this article but did not reply by this publication’s deadline.) 

Samer Hamadeh
Samer Hamadeh

“When you have someone showing up at your door with a table ready to go, there are no compliance issues,” Hamadeh explained. “If we come to your house, the client saves up to an hour of round-trip travel time, and we’re open more hours, nights and weekends than any clinic could ever be—so, for a veteran who is immobile, not sleeping well, living too far away from a clinic, this new Zeel program is a godsend.” 

Typically, said Hamadeh, it takes on average 23 days from when a VA physician writes a prescription to get a first medical appointment—but with Zeel’s technology, a Zeel patient-care coordinator contacts the veteran with 48 hours, guaranteed. “These veterans are blown away by the warp speed that is [the result of] a tech startup meets a vendor to veterans,” Hamadeh said. 

A Meaningful Mission 

Acupuncture and massage therapy both helped relieve Zeel co-founder Alison Harmelin’s back pain during her two pregnancies. After that, the couple created a digital platform that matched clients with practitioners of integrative medicine. Harmelin said she and Hamadeh quickly noticed that about 80% of searches were for massage therapy, and they pivoted to create their massage app. 

Now, Harmelin said, getting therapists into veterans’ homes for massage sessions is about much more than running a business.

Alison Harmelin
Alison Harmelin

“We are a very patriotic family,” she said, and shared that her father served in the U.S. Coast Guard, her uncle served in the Army, and her cousin is on active duty in the Air Force. Her husband, Hamadeh, whose family emigrated from Syria to the U.S, said he feels proud to be an American and to help veterans.

“We believe in serving your country—and obviously I think the veterans in this country have served in a way that no one else really has,” Harmelin said. “Throughout my life, if I had to think about what I admired most, or people that most inspired me, it was veterans. Freedom is not free. Those veterans are protecting the freedoms that we hold so dear.

“And so, when this opportunity came up, I jumped for joy,” she said. “Zeel was very validly doing a great consumer business, and we still do that business—but the mission of this business to help get veterans out of chronic pain is so much more meaningful for me.” 

What it Looks Like to Work with Zeel 

Some massage therapists might wonder why they should consider working with veterans through Zeel rather than simply becoming a VA Community Care Provider themselves. 

The answer to that is the focus and ease Zeel provides, said Hamadeh. “There’s a lot we do that just makes it easy for the massage therapist to practice her craft and not have to worry about administration,” he said.

For example, he said, whereas the VA is not necessarily a timely payer, Zeel pays its massage therapists every week “like clockwork.” Payment to Zeel massage therapists for each one-hour-mobile session ranges from $70 to $105 depending on geographic location, said Hamadeh, with a somewhat lower payment for massage conducted on-site in the massage therapist’s office. (This payment structure is the same for therapists working through the Zeel app with non-veteran clients.) 

Additionally, Zeel handles all the paperwork required by the VA and provides the SOAP notes forms required by the VA right on its app. Zeel’s Trust & Safety Group verifies every client before the first appointment. Zeel also partners with a third-party training program to help massage therapists adopt best practices for communicating and working with veterans.

To be approved to work with veterans through Zeel, a credentialed massage therapist must undergo a Medicare fraud check and extensive background check, receive a National Provider Identifier number, and complete SOAP notes for every session. 

Working with veterans through Zeel, a massage therapist will receive an assignment of 12 sessions prescribed to one veteran, said Samadeh. “When we assign you a client, you are getting 12 treatments with that client, not one [session] and hoping they’ll order again,” he explained. The therapist can also count on being paid for that chunk of sessions, rather than needing to constantly book individual sessions.

A Calmer Life

Donald Deleskiewicz, the Marine Corps lance corporal mentioned earlier in this article, is one of the veterans who received his massage sessions from Zeel massage therapist Lindsey Price, LMT.

Lindsey Price, LMT
Lindsey Price, LMT

“What I like about this program is that you really develop a relationship with these [veterans],” said Price. “With some of them, you can just tell that they look defeated. You can tell that they’ve been through so many things with no real progress.

“I love when, toward the end of the session, they’re smiling and they’re happy. They’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh. I was able to go out to dinner with my brother and I haven’t been able to do that in two years,’ because the pain creates an anxiety that you will not be able to enjoy things. You can’t sit at a table in a restaurant for two hours because you’ll have to get up after 15 minutes and stretch and move.” 

Many of the veterans Price sees, like Deleskiewicz, have chased pain relief for years. “Some of them have already had surgeries. Some of them have been to physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncture, they’ve had ablations,” Price said. “They’ve been on medications every day. I think a lot of times when I get there, I’m like the last hope. 

“It’s usually between session four and six when they kind of have this ah-ha moment” Price said. I’ll start asking them questions at the beginning of the session, and they’re like, ‘Oh, actually, I’ve gotten great sleep this week.’ They start to see not just the pain start to decrease or feel more manageable, but other aspects of their life feel calmer.” 

Taking Care of Veterans 

Zeel’s team has been presenting its data to directors of the VA’s U.S. regions, most recently at a conference in March.

“The response was so positive,” said Harmelin. “They were so thrilled to hear about the program and so on board with it. It was revelatory to some of these VA heads, and trust me, we will be doing a huge amount of outreach to make sure that every one of those folks that we spoke to at that conference makes an effort to get Zeel connected to the VA medical centers in their state.” 

Harmelin recalled listening to a military veteran speak at that conference, about the journey that begins the day a veteran leaves the service. “People think the hard work is the time overseas or the time when you’re active duty,” she said. “But once you’ve walked away from the military, that’s where the healing begins. We’re here for that.”

With their massage program out of the pilot phase and rolling out to veterans across the U.S., Harmelin and Hamadeh are now focused on welcoming massage therapists to the Zeel team. 

“We’re going to make a massive push, and we’re going to recruit, hopefully, tens of thousands of massage therapists to join the cause,” said Hamadeh. “And we’re going to take care of our veterans.” 

Karen Menehan

About the Author

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief–print and digital. Her articles for this publication include “This is How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practices Make Business Better,” one of the articles in the August 2021 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of a national 2022 Folio Eddies Award for editorial excellence.