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If it passes the Senate, the bill would exempt VA physicians from restrictions limiting their practice of telehealth over state lines.
The US House of Representatives voted this week to allow Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) physicians to practice telehealth across state lines, a move that could modernize part of the embattled agency.
Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Julia Brownley (D-CA) co-sponsored the bill, dubbed the Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act. It allows VA physicians to practice “at any location in any State…if the covered health care professional is using telemedicine to provide treatment,” exempting them from existing licensure provisions.
The Senate must green-light the proposal before it can get to the president’s desk.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Thompson said “outdated barriers” had hindered the growth of telehealth in the VA. Although department doctors may practice across the national system, they are currently limited to providing telehealth services in-state.
Expanded access to telehealth could ease strain on the VA. The department is facing a physician shortage, with nearly 50,000 vacant positions. Understaffing has led to appointment delays and procedure cancellations.
Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week that the bill would keep the agency from “forcing veterans to a bricks-and-mortar VA location when the type of service they need they could access online from the comfort of their living room.”
A quarter of American service members return from active duty to live in rural communities. Rural veterans accounted for half of those who used VA telehealth in 2016, according to Thompson. Across the system, 88% of veterans said they were happy with its telehealth services.
The development is a tentative victory for advocates of both telehealth and bipartisanship. It gained enough support in the House to be passed by voice vote.
Another bipartisan duo, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), introduced the same text to the upper chamber in April.
Thompson, who is father of a staff sergeant in the Army, acknowledged the timeliness of the bill in a statement.
“As our nation celebrates Veterans Day this weekend, it is particularly meaningful and sends a message that we put our veterans first. This bill will ensure that our veterans receive timely health care no matter where they live,” he said.