Ernst touts VETS Act at Iowa Veterans Home

Source: Newton Daily News

‘Access to health care for vets is a top priority’

MARSHALLTOWN — The bipartisan VETS Act, designed to increase telehealth offerings to veterans, particularly those who are disabled or living in rural areas, passed unanimously in the Senate and will head to the House for approval. U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said the bill will make it even easier for veterans to get the help they need in a timely matter.

“Making sure they have access, that’s number one,” Ernst said.

Ernst, toured the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown Monday and met with local veterans at the home. Ernst, a veteran herself, served 23 years in the Army Reserve and the National Guard and is the first female combat veteran in the United States Senate. Ernst said tackling veterans issues is a top priority and she’s committed to making sure Iowa’s veterans are receiving the care they need.

“I want to make sure that they get the care they earned and they deserve,” Ernst said. “Sometimes we see failures, and we’ve got to own up to those failures and make sure we’re stepping up and correcting that.”

Ernst said she wants to continue to improve the access veterans have to health care through the Veterans Affairs health care system, which is why she co-sponsored the VETS Act. The legislation was passed unanimously in the United States Senate on Jan. 3, which Ernst said was a special thrill as she was sitting in the presiding officer’s chair the day the bill passed. Ernst said she believes the bill will help veterans living in rural areas attain greater access to health care services, including mental health services.

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 by allowing doctors to treat patients outside of their home states. 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.

Ernst agrees.

“It’s a great step forward for veterans in rural areas, it broadens the scope of technology by connecting them with a physician they need to speak with,” Ernst said. “They can do it in the comfort of their own home.”

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 expanding 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’d 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.

Ernst said initial telehealth offerings from the VA hospitals have already been receiving rave reviews from veterans. She cited a World War II veteran she’d spoken with who’s been able to talk to his doctor over the internet. The experience encouraged Ernst, who said she had some concerns that older veterans might struggle to use the technology.

“We’re always looking at ways to provide easy access to veterans, why not use that technology,” Ernst said.

Ernst cited U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hi, her co-sponsor for the bill as someone who’s encouraged expansion of telehealth medicine. Expanding the telehealth program to allow doctors from around the country to meet with veterans online will give Hirono’s constituents more access to care, Ernst said. Veterans living in rural areas around the country face many of the same challenges in accessing the care they need, Ernst said continuing to expand the telehealth services will make it easier for them to get the care they need in a timely matter.

“They can talk to a specialist in another state, before we couldn’t do that, now we have an opportunity to do that,” Ernst said.