VA to expand telehealth services for veterans nationwide

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is dramatically expanding its current telehealth capabilities to meet the growing needs of its patient population, particularly in the area of mental health services as well as rural and underserved parts of the United States.

Working with the Office of American Innovation and the Department of Justice, the VA has announced that it intends to issue a regulation allowing the department’s clinicians to provide telehealth services from anywhere in the country to veterans nationwide regardless of location—including at home—thereby waiving state provider licensing requirements that limit access to care.

“We're removing regulations that have prevented us from doing this,” said VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD. “We're removing geography as a barrier so that we can speed up access to veterans and really honor our commitment to them.”

Shulkin and President Trump made the announcement regarding the “Anywhere to Anywhere” telemedicine initiative on Thursday at the White House as part of a technology demonstration.

“We’re expanding the ability of veterans to connect with their VA healthcare team from anywhere using mobile application on the veteran’s own phone or the veteran’s own computer,” said Trump.

“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 bigger and bigger request—and also in suicide prevention,” the President added. “It will make a tremendous difference for the veterans in rural locations in particular.”

The agency already offers VA Video Connect, the technology program that enables its providers to use mobile devices to connect with veterans on their devices and home computers, which is currently used by more than 300 agency clinicians at 67 facilities across the country. Now, the plan is to roll out these capabilities nationally.

“What we’re announcing today is a big deal for veterans,” said Shulkin. “It’s really going to expand access for veterans in a way we haven’t done before.”

Shulkin pointed out that the VA already has the largest telehealth program in the nation, noting that in 2016 about 700,000 veterans received services through the technology in 50 different medical specialties including tele-dentistry, tele-dermatology and tele-intensive care.

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What the expansion of agency’s telehealth services will mean for healthcare is that “we're going to be able to use VA providers in cities where there are a lot of doctors, and be able to use those doctors to help our veterans in rural areas where there aren't many healthcare professionals,” added Shulkin, who emphasized that mental health and suicide prevention are areas that “can really use that expertise.”

The American Telemedicine Association voiced its strong support for the VA’s expansion of telehealth services and eliminating state-by-state licensure requirements for its healthcare professionals.

“We applaud Dr. Shulkin for demonstrating the value of telehealth today at the White House,” said Gary Capistrant, chief policy officer at ATA. “We encourage President Trump to issue an executive order to eliminate the state-by-state licensure model for all federal and private-sector health professional employees servicing federal government programs—notably agencies (such as the VA and the Department of Health and Human Services), health benefit programs (such as Medicare and TRICARE), federally-funded health sites (such as community health centers and rural clinics), and during federally-declared emergencies or disasters.”

The President and Shulkin also took the opportunity to announce the launch of a mobile app that will enable veterans to schedule and change their appointments at VA medical facilities using their smartphones.

“This is something they were never able to do,” commented Trump. “Technology has given us this advantage, but unfortunately we have not taken advantage of that until now.”

The internally developed Veterans Appointment Request app, which can be downloaded from the VA’s app store, is able to track appointment details and the status of requests, send messages about requested appointments, as well as receive notifications and cancel appointments.

“Today, this is available in all 18 of our regions across the country and we’ve already booked more than 4,000 appointments from veterans directly from their smartphones so that they can schedule their own appointments,” added Shulkin. “But, now we’re announcing the national rollout of this.”

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