The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will soon roll out expanded telehealth capabilities, including a new application called VA Video Connect, to provide greater access to health care for veterans, as part of an initiative announced by President Donald Trump and VA Secretary David Shulkin, M.D., on Thursday.
The goal of the initiative is to use telehealth technology and mobile applications in order to connect with more Veterans to provide services where they live, Shulkin said during the White House event announcing the initiative.
The most significant aspect of the initiative is a new regulation that enables doctors to provide health care to veterans anywhere in the VA through telemedicine, regardless of location or state licensing laws.
“We’re expanding the ability of veterans to connect with their VA health care team from anywhere using mobile applications on the veterans’ own phone or own computer,” President Trump said during a White House event announcing the initiative, which a video was posted on YouTube. “This will significantly expand access to care for our veterans, especially for those who need help in the area of mental health, which is a big request. And also in suicide prevention. It will make a tremendous different for veterans in rural locations in particular. We’re launching the mobile app that will allow VA patents to schedule and change appointments using their smartphones.”
Through VA Telehealth VA can practice over 50 clinical specialties, from tele-dermatology to tele-intensive care. Many of the veterans using telehealth live in rural areas or far away from their closest VA medical facility, according to Shulkin.
The VA has the largest telehealth program in the country and last year, 700,000 veterans received telehealth services through the VA.
Members of Congress have been trying to address geography and licensing barriers to telehealth services, most recently with the introduction of the Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support Act of 2017 (VETS Act), which proposed to allow qualified VA health professionals to operate across state lines and conduct telehealth services. U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI), both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for the expansion of telehealth services for veterans by introducing the VETS Act in 201, and then reintroducing it this past April.
Sen. Ernst, a combat veteran, voiced support for the VA initiative, stating in a press release that the announcement “follows the senator’s efforts to improve telehealth services for veterans through their bipartisan legislation, the VETS Act.”
“The VA’s decision to allow veterans to access care from the comfort of, or closer to, their own homes is necessary to improving quality and timely care for the more than 200,000 veterans in Iowa, particularly those who are disabled or reside in rural communities,” Ernst said.
Other groups pushing for expansion of telehealth services and licensing, including the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, also applauded the new regulation. “The NCSBN commends VA for addressing the important health care challenges facing our nation’s veterans, particularly through telehealth, and appreciates the opportunity to share our views with you," the organization stated a letter. "VA and private sector efforts to expand telehealth as a model of care delivery and recognizes that technological advances can reduce the cost of care, increasing patient access to care and satisfaction and improve health outcomes for veterans across the country,” the organization stated, further noting that the organization stands by the idea that the standard of care for telehealth nursing should be the same as care delivered in person.
The initiative announced on Thursday will expand VA’s telehealth capability in three specific areas.
Shulkin noted that a new federal regulation was required to allow VA doctors to treat patients remotely across state lines. Working with the White House Office of American Innovation and the Department of Justice, the VA be issuing a regulation that explicitly authorizes VA providers, using telehealth technologies, to serve veterans no matter where the provider or the veteran is located in the country, Shulkin said. The “Anywhere to Anywhere VA Health Care” initiative will enable VA to hire providers in major metropolitan areas, where there is an abundance of clinical services and connect them to better serve veterans in rural communities that lack sufficient medical services, Shulkin said.
He specifically cited the example of the need for mental health professionals and suicide prevention services. “That’s one area where we can use that expertise,” Shulkin said.
The VA also is initiating the nationwide rollout of a new application called VA Video Connect. VA Video Connect provides a secure and web-enabled video service that makes it easy for Veterans to connect with their VA providers by video on their own mobile phones or personal computers. VA Video Connect is currently being used by more than 300 VA providers at 67 hospitals and their associated clinics. It will be rolled out to VA providers and Veterans across the country over the next year.
Shulkin also announced the nationwide roll-out of an application to make it easier to scheduled or change appointments with VA. The Veteran Appointment Request app, or VAR for short, is an application that makes it possible for Veterans to use their smartphone, tablet or computer to schedule or modify appointments at VA facilities. The VAR capability is currently available to Veterans at several locations nationwide. During its initial rollout, Veterans used the app to book more than 4,000 appointments with their providers. Following today’s announcement, VA will continue to roll out the application nationwide – bringing the capability to all VA facilities and clinics.
“What we’re really doing is, we’re removing regulations that have prevented us from doing this. We’re removing geography as a barrier,” Shulkin said
During the White House event announcing the initiative, Shulkin demonstrated some of the telehealth capabilities, specifically the VA Video Connect to connect with a veteran receiving on-site care in Grand Pass, Oregon. During the demonstration, Shulkin also showed how the video capabilities could connect the veteran with an internal medicine specialists in another city.
During the White House event, which was broadcast on YouTube, Shulkin also demonstrated what he called “the doctor bag of the future,” which included digital diagnostic tools and a notebook computer, the same digital health tools that President Trump’s own personal doctor uses. “We are now able to bring this doctor’s bag into the homes of our veterans, the same technology that is available to President of the United States, and that’s the way it should be,” Shulkin said.
During the event, President Trump also touted what he called “tremendous progress” by the VA in just the past six months to improve health care services to veterans through the use of technology. He specifically cited the upgrades to the VA’s electronic health record (EHR) system through its contract with Cerner to replace the VistA system with a commercial off-the-shelf platform, and the launching a new website that enables veterans to see wait times at both VA and non-VA hospitals.