Senate passes VETS Act, setting up telemedicine licensing reform at the VA

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Lawmakers will have to reconcile House and Senate versions of the VETS Act before sending a final bill to the president.

Legislation that would expand access to telemedicine at the Department of Veterans Affairs edged one step closer to becoming law after the Senate unanimously passed its own version of the VETS Act on Wednesday. 

The bill would reform telemedicine licensure at the VA, allowing physicians to care for patients anywhere in the country regardless of where they are located. That shift is a critical element of the Anywhere to Anywhere telehealth initiative that VA Secretary David Shulkin, M.D., announced alongside President Donald Trump in August.

The House passed its own version of the bill in November with slightly different technical language. The Senate bill, for example, includes a section that prohibits states from denying or revoking physician licensure for practicing telemedicine across state lines.

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

Lawmakers will have to reconcile the language in the two bills before sending a final version to the president. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, emphasized the impact the bill would have in opening up access to mental health services.

“All of our veterans must have access to quality and timely care, including life-saving mental health treatment, regardless of where they live,” she said in a statement

Health IT Now, which has advocated for reforming telemedicine licensing restrictions at the VA urged lawmakers to “quickly reconcile” the House and Senate versions.

"Health IT Now applauds the unanimous Senate passage of this critical legislation to propel VA health services into the 21st century and ensure our nation’s heroes have access to the care they need when they need it,” Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White said in a statement.

The legislation mirrors a rule proposed by the VA in September that would also allow physicians to practice over state lines. The comment period ended in November with broad support from provider and health IT organizations, but the rule has not yet been finalized.