VA FY 2017 budget anticipates expansion of telehealth services

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs puts a heavy emphasis on the expansion of telehealth efforts in its proposed fiscal year 2017 budget, unveiled Tuesday.

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 provide 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.

"In addition to direct support of ambulatory care services for veterans in rural clinics, telehealth maintains the viability of many small rural VA medical centers, ones where core services would be impossible to sustain without access to remote expertise such as tele-intensive care, teleaudiology, telepathology, teleretinal imaging, teletransplant, teledermatology and telemental health," the agency says. "Telehealth funding supports the critical clinical, technological and administrative infrastructures necessary for VA to successfully deliver this volume of virtual care services to veterans safely and cost-effectively."

The VHA expects that overall, 12 percent of veterans will receive some care using telehealth in 2017.

The VA notes in its request that the proposed funding would support expected telehealth program growth of roughly 15 percent to 20 percent annually. The agency also notes that with an increase in virtual visits comes a need to hire more providers, citing that care delivered remotely "decreases the need for additional brick and mortar facilities."

Additionally, the VA points to geography, transportation and a lack of medical resources in rural areas as hurdles regarding access to care. "Expansions of specific programs that benefit our veterans are necessary if VHA expects to achieve better outcomes, or at least parity with the private sector," the agency says.

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:
- here's the VA's announcement (.pdf)
- check out this breakdown of the medical and IT programs portion of the budget (.pdf)