Behavioral health advocates back telehealth bill; regulation to loosen VA practice restrictions advances

A diverse group of organizations ranging from behavioral health advocacy groups to health IT developers pledged their support for a bill that would allow VA physicians to practice telemedicine across state lines.

Meanwhile, a proposed regulation that would similarly loosen telehealth practice restrictions has passed its first hurdle.

In a letter (PDF) addressed to two senators and two representatives on both sides of the aisle, 25 organizations expressed their support for the Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act of 2017. The bill was introduced in both the House and Senate in April by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

Led by Health IT Now, the organizations lamented the “artificial geographic restrictions on the use of telehealth” that have limited its use in the VA. Under current regulations, VA providers can waive state licensing requirements if both the physician and patient are in a federally owned facility. The bill would loosen those requirements to allow VA physicians to practice telemedicine in any state or location, regardless of where the patient or provider is located.

The American Psychological Association, the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness and the National Alliance on Mental Illness were among the mental health advocacy groups that pledged their support.

“It is unacceptable that our veterans must overcome artificial barriers when attempting to access healthcare,” they wrote. 

RELATED: VA expands telehealth services with new ‘Anywhere to Anywhere’ initiative

But the VA is undertaking its own efforts to allow providers to practice across state lines. On Wednesday, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) completed its review of a proposed rule that would allow VA providers to practice telehealth in any state. The proposed rule has not yet been submitted to the Federal Register.

OIRA’s approval is the first step in expanding telehealth access within the VA which serves as a major cog in the system’s “Anywhere to Anywhere VA Health Care” program unveiled last month by VA Secretary David Shulkin and President Donald Trump. During that announcement, Shulkin highlighted the impact that expanded telehealth services would have for mental health and suicide prevention.

Elsewhere in Congress, the Senate unanimously passed the CHRONIC Care Act of 2017 on Wednesday, which would expand the use of telemedicine under Medicare.