Ernst pushes for expansion of telehealth care for veterans

Source: The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — Elderly, disabled and rural veterans would have more access to health care if Congress approves legislation proposed by Sen. Joni Ernst to remove barriers to the expansion of telehealth services by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act (VETS), which the Iowa Republican is introducing with Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, “moves us one step closer to achieving more affordable, patient-centered health care” beyond the walls of a VA facility. Sen. Chuck Grassley also is a co-sponsor.

Telehealth care is an innovative approach to meeting the needs of 225,000 Iowa veterans and more than 21 million veterans nationwide, “including the invisible struggles of mental health care,” Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, said in her weekly conference call with reporters.

Telehealth care is not new to the VA. Veterans’ use of telehealth services increased 18 percent in fiscal 2014 and 12 percent of veterans received some of their care through telehealth services, Ernst said.

However, she said there are barriers that make it difficult and, in some cases, costly for veterans because they have to travel to a VA facility to use those services.

Under current law, the VA may only waive the state license requirement for telehealth services if both the patient and physician are located in a federally owned facility, she explained. In addition, the VA may only perform at-home telehealth care when the patient and physician are located in the same state.

“These barriers are a deterrent for disabled or rural veterans who are seeking treatment from a physician in another state, in some cases forcing veterans to travel great lengths to a federal facility before receiving telehealth services by camera or phone,” Ernst said.

Her bill would allow VA health professionals to practice telemedicine across state lines if they are qualified and practice within the scope of their authorized federal duties.

Expanding the use of telehealth services could reduce veterans’ health care-related costs by an average of $2,000 a year, Ernst said.

The VETS Act has been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, and a companion bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Charles Rangel, D-NY, and Glen Thompson, R-PA.

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