The VA MISSION Act of 2018 expanded options for veterans to receive government-paid health care from private sector community health care practitioners. The act tasked the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop rules that determine eligibility for outside care based on appointment wait times or distance to the nearest VA facility. As a part of those standards, VA opted not to include the availability of VA telehealth in its wait time calculations—a decision that we believe was a gross misjudgment with far-reaching consequences for veterans. Excluding telehealth from the guidelines has unnecessarily restricted veterans’ access to high-quality health care and has squandered large sums of taxpayer dollars.
The VA has reviewed its initial MISSION Act eligibility standards and proposed a correction that recognizes telehealth as a valid means of providing health care to veterans who prefer that option. 1 Telehealth may not have been an essential component of health care before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it is clear that t he best action VA can take is to swiftly enact its recommended change, stipulating that both VA telehealth and in-person health care constitute access to treatment. If implemented, this correction would save taxpayers an astronomical sum—according to a VA report to Congress, about $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2021 alone. 2 The cost savings from this proposed correction is reason enough to implement it. But just as importantly, increased use of VA telehealth also means higher quality, quicker, and more convenient care for veterans.
The VA is the recognized world leader in providing telehealth that is effective, timely, and veteran centric. Veterans across the country have access to telehealth services in more than 30 specialties. 3 To ensure accessibility, the VA has established partnerships with major mobile broadband carriers so that veterans can receive telehealth at home without additional charges. 4 The VA project Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations ( ATLAS) brings VA telehealth to areas where existing internet infrastructure may not be adequate to support video telehealth. ATLAS is a collaboration with private organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and Walmart. 4 The agency also provides tablets to veterans who might not have access to telehealth, fostering higher access and patient satisfaction. 4
The VA can initiate telehealth care rapidly. The “Anywhere to Anywhere” VA Health Care initiative and telecare hubs eliminate geographic constraints, allowing clinicians to provide team-based services across county and state lines to veterans’ homes and communities.
VA’s telehealth effort maximizes convenience for veterans . It reduces travel time, travel expenses, depletion of sick leave, and the need for childcare. Veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder or military sexual trauma who are triggered by traffic and waiting rooms, those with mobility issues, or those facing the stigma of mental health treatment often prefer to receive care in the familiarity of their home. Nonetheless, any veteran who desires an in-person appointment would continue to have that option under the proposed VA rule change.
VA telehealth is often used for mental health care, using the same evidence-based psychotherapies that VA has championed and are superior to that available in the private sector .5,6 This advantage is largely due to VA’s rigorous training, consultation, case review, care delivery, measurement standards, and integrated care model. In a recent survey of veterans engaged in mental health care, 80% reported that VA virtual care via video and/or telephone is as helpful or more helpful than in‐person services. 7 And yet, because of existing regulations, VA telemental health (TMH) does not qualify as access, resulting in hundreds of thousands of TMH visits being outsourced yearly to community practitioners that could be quickly and beneficially furnished by VA clinicians.