Committee Chairman: “…in large geographic territories, legislation like this is a godsend.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) discussed her Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act of 2015 (VETS Act) as the committee considers the legislation. The Iowa Senator introduced this bipartisan legislation with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) in October.

Following Senator Ernst’s remarks, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Johnny Isakson, noted the legislation “does address a critical need.” He also added “we want to move forward as soon as we can. It’s a great suggestion that really helps to solve a problem in the most economical way, but also benefit mostly our veterans which is why we’re here to begin with.”

Chairman Isakson later added “…in large geographic territories, legislation like this is a godsend.”

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CHAIRMAN ISAKSON: We’re delighted to have you here. You’re our first witness and we’ll be glad to hear from you.

SENATOR ERNST: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I appreciate it very much. And thank you for your service, and of course your service to our veterans as well. Thank you as well, Senator Sullivan. And I do wish to thank all of the members of the Committee who have worked so hard for our veterans. This is one of the most important committees I feel to making sure that we honor our commitments to the men and women that have served in our nation’s military. So again thank you for allowing me to testify today.

I want to specifically thank my lead Democratic sponsor, Senator Hirono, for her help with this legislation which is designed to improve the access and quality of care we provide our veterans. The bill is called the VETS Act for a reason, and that’s because we all want to honor and help those that served and sacrificed for our country.

The VA has been practicing telemedicine since 2001, and they are largely cited as leaders and innovators in the field. Their efforts in telemedicine have saved money and veterans’ time by eliminating often an hour or more long drives to the VA, and reducing bed days at the VA.

For example: According to the VA, in Fiscal Year 2014, telehealth reduced bed days of care by 54%, reduced hospital admissions by 32%, and saved $34 in travel savings per consultation.

Our legislation is straightforward, commonsense, and builds upon this work that the VA is already doing in telemedicine. It allows VA doctors to conduct telemedicine across state lines for patients in their homes—something they’re already able to do within state lines.

Unfortunately, current law allows doctors to call patients at their homes if they are in the same state, but prevents them from doing so if their veteran patient lives across state lines. VA doctors wishing to treat patients via telehealth across state lines must have the patient drive to a federal facility.

This is the case even though there’s no special licensing requirement for VA doctors to practice in different states.

For example: A veteran in my small town of Red Oak, Iowa who wishes to have a telemedicine appointment with a doctor at the VA hospital in Omaha, Nebraska - that’s closest to my hometown - an hour away, must drive to the VA center in Des Moines. A two-hour drive. By contrast, if the doctor was based in Des Moines, the patient could remain in their home in Red Oak and have a telemedicine appointment.

Back in Iowa, and in many other states, rural veterans are often faced with the struggle of making it to a VA facility in the city. Increasing opportunities for telemedicine is a great way to tackle this challenge for services ranging from mental health treatment to post-surgery follow up.

In addition, this bill includes language we worked with the VA on to ensure policymakers have up to date information on the VA’s telehealth program. This report language is designed not to have a cost or create any extra work, as this is data that the Department already collects on its telehealth program.

As you may know, this legislation has broad bipartisan support with 12 co-sponsors, 3 from this committee, and is supported by the VFW, the American Legion, Concerned Veteran’s for America, the Paralyzed Veterans Association, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – and the American Telemedicine Association, and Health IT Now.

I hope you all are able to see the commonsense behind this legislation and I greatly appreciate all of you taking the time to consider this legislation and listen to my remarks today. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN ISAKSON: Senator Ernst, we appreciate your leadership and Senator Hirono, your cosponsorship of the legislation. Proud cosponsorship.

SEN. ERNST: Thank you, Mazie, very much.

CHAIRMAN ISAKSON: I think we have five other Committee members who are also cosponsors of the bill.

SEN. ERNST: Wonderful.

CHAIRMAN ISAKSON: It does address a critical need. We’ve had some input which I’ll go over with you, but we want to move forward as soon as we can. It’s a great suggestion that really helps to solve a problem in the most economical way, but also benefit mostly our veterans which is why we’re here to begin with. Thank you very much for sending me the legislation, we’ll be with you shortly when we do a markup.

SEN. ERNST: Thank you, Mr. Chair.

CHAIRMAN ISAKSON: Thank you.

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