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The bipartisan Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support Act was passed by the Senate unanimously this week.
(A VA facility in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy the Department of Veterans' Affairs Flickr)
The bipartisan Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act was passed by the Senate unanimously this week.
A similar bill passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming support in November. The 2 bills contain slightly different language, and will need to be reconciled before the President can sign it into law.
The act is a significant step for telehealth in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) and in the broader United States. It allows for VA physicians to practice over state lines with their existing licensure, removing significant hurdles to the delivery of remote care to former military members. The newly-passed Senate version contains a more specific provision than the House bill, preventing states from denying or revoking the license of covered VA healthcare professionals based on their participation in telehealth programs.
The Senate version of the bill was cosponsored by Iowa Republican Joni Ernst and Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono. In a statement championing the bill’s passage, Ernst noted the importance of telemedicine for reaching veterans who live in rural areas (her state is one of the least-densely populated in the country).
“The VETS Act would allow Iowa’s rural or disabled veterans to receive care from their own home by increasing telehealth and telemedicine services provided by the VA,” she said. “With more than 200,000 veterans across Iowa, I am thrilled to see our bipartisan effort advance through the U.S. Senate so we can continue working to ensure better care for those who have sacrificed so much.”
American service members returning from active duty often face significant, complex medical conditions, both physical and mental. A fourth of them come home to rural communities. Rural veterans accounted for half of those who used VA telehealth in 2016, according to Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) who sponsored the House version of the bill.
Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the VETS Act would keep the agency from “forcing veterans to a brick-and-mortar VA location when the type of service they need they could access online from the comfort of their living room.”
Across the system, 88% of surveyed veterans said they were satisfied with its current telehealth services, according to a recent VA report.
The passage is a victory for a VA that is currently understaffed and facing scrutiny for its health IT programs. The department has nearly 50,000 vacant positions, and physician shortages have led to appointment delays and procedure cancellations. Telehealth is seen as an effective way to ease the burden on overtaxed facilities.
Hirono urged the swift enactment of the law, and vowed to “continue to fight to ensure Hawaii veterans can access the care they need from a strong, well-resourced VA system.”
The drive towards telehealth is part of an overall effort to modernize the VA. The department is also undergoing efforts to overhaul its electronic health records (EHR) systems and ensure interoperability with the Department of Defense. That project remains on hold, and has recently faced heavy scrutiny from members of Congress over its price tag and timeline.