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Support Builds for VA Telehealth Legislation

The VETS Act of 2015 would enable VA physicians to use telehealth to treat veterans no matter they're located, eliminating the requirement that they be licensed in each state.

By Eric Wicklund

- Tellehealth advocates are lining up to support a Senate bill that would enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat veterans no matter where they’re located.

The Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act of 2015 (S. 2170) would permit VA physicians to provide telehealth services, including mental healthcare, to veterans in their homes, eliminating the requirement that physicians be licensed in each state in which they do business.

Supporters say the bill could significantly boost the number of veterans seeking healthcare via phone or online services, which stood at roughly 680,000 in 2014 – 45 percent of which live in rural areas. It would also make things much easier for disabled veterans, those who travel considerable distances to healthcare facilities, and those living with behavioral and mental health issue who are reluctant to seek healthcare.

The bill has received support from the American Telemedicine Association, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Concerned Veterans for America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Joining that list this past week is the Health IT Now coalition, comprised of healthcare providers, payers, business leaders and consumer advocates.

In a letter to co-sponsors Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White called the VA a “leader in telehealth,” and noted that VA home telehealth services have cut hospital admissions by 35 percent and bed days of care by 59 percent.

“Despite these advances and outcomes, artificial geographical restrictions on the use of telehealth constrain its growth within the VA,” White wrote. “Under current law, the VA can only waive state physician licensing requirements if both the physician and patient are located in a federally-owned facility. We applaud your efforts to remove these restrictions by allowing physicians to treat veterans in their home, regardless of location. In a modern world of increased travel and technology utilization, health care should not be restricted by state borders.”

In a statement on her website, Ernst called telehealth “one of the VA’s transformational initiatives,” and noted that VA telehealth care had grown by 18 percent in FY 2014, so that roughly 12 percent of all veterans are using the service in some form. The service saves an average of $2,000 per patient on medical costs and travel, she said, and has been endorsed by 88 percent of the veterans using it.

The VETS Act “moves us one step closer to achieving more affordable, patient-centered healthcare that our veterans deserve by embracing telehealth services to offer physician care and health treatment beyond the walls of a VA facility,” she said. “Telehealth care is an innovative and important means to meet the wide-ranging needs of veterans in Iowa and nationwide, including the invisible struggles of mental health care.”

Co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Boozman (R-Ariz.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). A companion bill in the House of Representatives is co-sponsored by Reps. Charles Rangell (D-N.Y.) and Glen Thompson (R.-Penn.)

Not everyone is behind the bill, however. The Federation of State Medical Boards – which has launched its own Interstate Medical Licensing Compact to ease cross-state licensing guidelines – has argued that healthcare providers should be licensed in each state in which their patients are located, so as to protect accountability and oversight.

“In its current form, the proposed VA legislation falls short of ensuring these protections, and it should be amended to strengthen them,” FSMB Chief Advocacy Officer Lisa Robin told Modern Healthcare.

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