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VETS Act, Supporting Telehealth for Veterans, Now in Senate’s Hands

The Vets Act of 2017, giving VA doctors the authority to use telehealth to treat veterans wherever they live, receives unanimous House approval. Senate action, however, is uncertain.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Telehealth advocates are cheering the House’s unanimous approval this week of the VETS Act, saying it would give the nation’s veterans unfettered access to telehealth no matter where they live.

“The passage of our bill in the House today marks a major step toward our goal of expanding the VA’s ability to provide better, more accessible care to our veterans – including right in their own homes,” Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor with Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) of The Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act of 2017 (H.R. 2123), said in a press release following Tuesday’s vote. “New technologies provide us with better ways to provide care for veterans and tailor it to their unique needs, and we need to capitalize on that innovation.”

Whether the Senate feels the same way remains to be seen.

A companion bill submitted by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), S. 925, still sits before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, to which it was referred last April.

The bill would give Veterans Affairs doctors an exemption from state licensure laws to treat veterans via telehealth in any location. It also mandates that VA Secretary David Shulkin report back to Congress within the year on “the effectiveness of the use of telemedicine by the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

READ MORE: New Rule Would Give VA Doctors National Telehealth Privileges

“The VA has been doing limited telemedicine with great success … but their expansion is hampered by outdated regulations,” Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette just prior to Tuesday’s vote.  His said his bill “leverages the new technology and [keeps the VA] 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.”

The VETS Act has received support from a broad range of organizations, including the American Telemedicine Association, American Medical Informatics AssociationFederal Trade Commission, Health IT Now, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), Teladoc, Oracle, the American Psychological Association, the Brain Injury Association of America, the National Association of Social Workers and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Military Medicine Research.

The AAFP’s support was guarded, however. The organization said it would support this specific bill to improve veterans’ access to much-needed healthcare services, though it “still strongly supports state-based licensure and regulation of physicians and other healthcare providers as well as the states’ ability to regulate the practice of telehealth in their state.”

Supporters are hoping the House’s unanimous approval will sway a Senate that hasn’t done much to advance several telehealth- and telemedicine-themed bills before them.

“Ensuring each and every one of our nation’s veterans, no matter where they call home, can access high quality and timely health care is and will always be one of the highest priorities of this committee,” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said, calling the VETS Act “a commonsense, bipartisan piece of legislation that would make it easier for VA doctors to provide telehealth treatment to veterans across state lines.”

READ MORE: Congress is Coming at CMS From All Angles With Telehealth Bills

Ernst, a combat veteran herself, tweeted that she was “thrilled” with the House vote.

The proposed legislation would give Congressional support to an effort by Shulkin to boost telehealth and telemedicine use in the VA. His “Anywhere to Anywhere VA Health Care” program, unveiled in September and backed by the Justice Department, would also give VA doctors the authority to treat veterans no matter where they’re located.

The effort has the support of many VA doctors.

“As long as they’re on a federal facility, I can be licensed anywhere and see them,” Harrison Weinstein, a psychologist affiliated with the VA campus in Salt Lake City , told Stars and Stripes. “But locally, if I have a veteran in rural Utah, we will do telehealth to home. They can be sitting in their living room at home, and we can do therapy that way. If it’s out of state, they can’t do that.”

“A big chunk of my case load is veterans who don’t live here. It solves a lot of access issues,” he added. “At an even lower level, it solves things like parking and veterans’ driving time. A lot of vets prefer it.”

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