Senate bill aimed at modernizing VA health system includes telehealth licensing provision

John McCain
Sen. John McCain is co-sponsoring a bill that includes allowing VA physicians to practice telehealth across state lines. (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A bill introduced by two senators on Monday designed to modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs includes a provision that would allow physicians to practice telehealth across state lines.

Introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the Veterans Community Care and Access Act of 2017 (PDF) would consolidate community care authorities into a single program, implement data-driven access and quality standards, improve walk-in care and ensure safe prescribing practices, among a slew of other requirements.

The senators also built in what has become a popular reform, allowing licensed VA physicians to practice telemedicine in any state regardless of where they are located. The language mimics the VETS Act, standalone legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives last month, and a rule proposed by the VA in September designed to support the agency’s “Anywhere-to-Anywhere” telehealth initiative.

RELATED: VA proposed rule would override state licensing restrictions to expand access to telehealth

The Senate bill also includes a short section requiring VA facilities to share medical records with non-Department providers “for the purpose of delivering care and enhancing the VA’s ability to recover funds from other responsible third parties.”

In an announcement, McCain said the bill would provide “long overdue, critical reforms” that would help “transform the VA into a 21st-century healthcare system.”

Like the VA’s proposed rule, the Senate bill would override state licensing restrictions and prohibit states from taking action against providers for practicing telehealth across state lines. Providers and health IT groups have expressed overwhelming support for the rule, although the Medical Board of California has voiced concerns that it would "undermine California's ability to protect healthcare consumers."

VA Secretary David Shulkin, M.D., has emphasized the need to integrated telehealth into the VA system, particularly as a way to improve access to mental health services and reduce the suicide rates among veterans.