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VA Expands Telehealth Access for Veterans

The agency announced at this week's American Telemedicine Association conference that its adding new mental health resource centers, part of an ambitious new telehealth initiative.

By Eric Wicklund

- The nation’s largest healthcare network is launching a new telehealth initiative.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is putting the focus on behavioral health with a network of Mental Health Telehealth Resource Centers, designed to tackle a growing population of veterans dealing with PTSD, chronic depression and bipolar disorder, among other issues.

“We are in the midst of the largest transformation in the history of VA with MyVA, which means we are reorienting what we do around the needs of our veterans and providing care when, how and where they want to receive that care,” David J. Shulkin, the VA’s Undersecretary for Health, said in announcing the initiative Monday at the American Telemedicine Association conference and trade show in Minneapolis. “These mental health telehealth resource centers will provide our veterans in underserved areas the expert mental health providers they may not otherwise be able to obtain locally. We know that we are doing more in telehealth than any other healthcare system and connecting mental health providers to areas hard to recruit and retain.”

Adding to the VA’s existing facility in New Haven, Conn., the department is creating resource centers in Charleston, S.C., Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City, as well as an online network connecting centers in Boise, Idaho, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Speaking at the ATA conference, Shulkin said telemedicine can address an ongoing healthcare access issue with the nation’s veterans, at least 40 percent of which move away from urban areas when they’re discharged in favor of quieter, rural locations.

By reaching out to them with digital health platforms, he said, the VA can extend care into the veteran’s home – where he or she is most comfortable – and reduce the need to build new clinics or hospitals.

Shulkin – a first-time visitor to the ATA’s annual conference – said the telepsychiatry initiative follows two years of heavy public criticism and exposure, much of which has focused on veteran access to and wait times at existing VA facilities.

According to VA officials, more than 675,000 veterans access healthcare through the VA’s telehealth network, representing some 12 percent of the nation’s 5.6 million veterans who receive VA care. That has helped to reduce the number of days that veterans spend in a VA hospital by some 56 percent and spawned more than 45 specialty telehealth platforms.

Shulkin further noted that the VA is bolstering its online presence, with some 32 mHealth apps now available and an enhanced patent portal accepting 1.7 secure messages from veterans to their providers in the past year, all designed to “encourage self-management among veterans.” On the horizon are a kiosk program and a text messaging program for medication management.

Stung by coverage of access issues at VA hospitals over the past two years, Shulkin said the department has launched what he called a “Declaration of Access.” And that effort, he said, includes a “significant enhancement of our telehealth capabilities.”

The department’s primary telehealth programs now are its Clinical Video Telehealth (CVT) platform, which uses real-time interactive video conferencing, sometimes with supportive peripheral technologies, to assess, treat and provide care to a patient remotely; the Home Telehealth (HT) platform, treating veterans with chronic conditions with health informatics, disease management and technologies such as in-home and mobile monitoring, messaging and/or video technologies; and Store and Forward Telehealth (SFT), an asynchronous platform in which clinical information in which data, images, sound and video are gathered and forwarded to or retrieved at another VA location for clinical evaluation.

Dig Deeper:

How Telemedicine Saved One VA Hospital $64K A Year

Support Builds for VA Telehealth Legislation

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