VETS Act legislation heads to Senate floor

Source: Newton Daily News

Bill provides greater access to telehealth benefits for veterans

A new bill designed to help veterans gain greater access to health care services by providing telemedicine benefits is making its way onto the Senate floor with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-IA, leading the charge.

The bill, known as the VETS Act, first introduced in 2015 and reintroduced this year, is a bipartisan effort sponsored by Ernst and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-HI, and would make it easier for veterans who have difficulty getting to Veterans Affairs hospitals to receive treatment over the phone.

Telehealth services, which allow patients to speak to a doctor over the phone or online, are nothing new, but the bill seeks to expand the use of those services to reach more veterans. Kurt Jackson, the director of the Veterans Affairs office in Jasper County said the service will make it easier for more veterans to get access to the health care they need.

“It’s going to be tremendous, it’s hard for disabled veterans to make a trip to the hospital,” Jackson said.

To receive care through the VA, veterans have to visit the VA hospital in Des Moines, or one of the clinics located in Marshalltown or Knoxville, Jackson said. In order to help veterans get to their doctor’s appointments, Jackson said his office has used the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP to make sure veterans are able to get the care they need. RSVP volunteers drive veterans to these appointments, and Jackson is able to pay their mileage through a program provided by the federal government. Without the program, Jackson said he’d spend most of his time driving veterans to their doctor’s appointments.

“It’s a tremendous assistance to my office, otherwise I’d spend the whole day on the road,” Jackson said.

There are some options that are currently available by phone for veterans who are struggling, particularly with mental health, Jackson said. A crisis hotline exists, as well as a number veterans can text to receive assistance. Improving access to health services is a critical issue, but Jackson said the first step is to ask for help.

“I think a lot of the issue is that you can only help people that want to be helped,” Jackson said. “With these mental health issues there are so many people that don’t feel like they need help, or don’t desire any help.”

VA commissioner Marta Ford, a former nurse, said she’s glad to see the possibility of telehealth services being offered, but she has some concerns about their application. Ford said it isn’t enough just to connect someone suffering from mental health issues with a doctor, they need to make sure a follow up appointment is completed to make sure veterans aren’t slipping through the cracks.

“They’ve got to have trained professionals on those phones, you need someone who knows how to deal with mental health issues,” Ford said. “You can’t do it all over the phone, you’ve got to have eyes on those people.”

Despite her reservations, Ford said she believes Iowa’s VA hospitals and clinics are some of the best in the country, and she knows the telehealth program will go a long way to bolster VA programs in other states where the need may be greater. While she’s heard complaints from veterans over the years, Ford said she’s been able to resolve many of the issues herself, or by involving Jackson.

“Here in Iowa we do a pretty good job of getting people in and getting them seen timely,” Ford said.

Jackson said he’s seen veterans hit roadblocks in attempting to get treatment before, but often he’s found the best solution is to have the veteran visit his office and they can sit down together to call and make the appointments needed.

“I call the veterans crisis line while they’re with me and we can go through it together, and I’ve done that a number of times,” Jackson said. “As long as they’re here with me we can call together.”