VA digital health pilot in Mississippi aims to boost access, cut wait times

Digital health continues to be a big part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' improvement plans, with one of the most recent efforts announced last week in Mississippi.

In a visit to Jackson, VA Sec. Robert McDonald shared details of a pilot program that will boost veterans' access to care, particularly for those in rural areas, Mississippi News Now reports. A primary goal of the effort is to cut wait times, especially in light the agency's recent troubles.

McDonald touted veterans being able to use "cellphones or tablets" to improve access, but also said there are hurdles ahead.

"We have work to do to balance privacy and convenience," he said, according to the article. "Here in Mississippi is where we're going to try that out first."

McDonald called the project crucial to the agency's evolution, adding that training will be available for older veterans.

The VA puts a heavy emphasis on the expansion of telehealth efforts in its proposed fiscal year 2017 budget, unveiled Feb. 9. Overall, President Barack Obama proposes $182.3 billion for the VA, the agency announced. VA's healthcare budget totals $68.6 billion, with $1.2 billion of that earmarked to fund telehealth.

In a budget breakdown, the VA notes that Veterans Health Administration Telehealth Services provided 2.1 million consultations to more than 677,000 veterans in 2015. In 2017, the agency anticipates the latter number growing to nearly 762,000 veterans.

Legislation proposed last fall by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and eight co-sponsors would allow veterans greater access to telehealth services by allowing providers to practice across state lines. The Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act of 2015 (VETS Act) mirrors a House bill introduced last May by Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Current law allows the Veterans Administration to waive state licensure requirements only if both the patient and physician are physically at a VA facility. Home telehealth services require both physician and patient to be located in the same state. 

To learn more:
- read the Mississippi News Now article