VA Telehealth Bill in Senate Would Loosen Restrictions

Ken Terry

October 15, 2015

United States Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) have introduced a bill that would allow health professionals at Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities to treat veterans using telehealth technology, regardless of which state the clinician or the patient resides in. The Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act of 2015, which has eight other Senate cosponsors, is identical to a measure that Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Glen Thompson (R-PA) introduced in the House in May and to two previous bills that Rangel proposed in 2012 and 2013.

Under current law, the VA may only waive the state licensing requirement for telehealth services if both the patient and the physician are located in a federally owned facility. Moreover, the VA may only perform at-home telehealth care when the patient and physician are located in the same state.

"These barriers are a deterrent for disabled or rural veterans who are seeking treatment from a physician in another state, in some cases forcing veterans to travel great lengths to a federal facility before receiving telehealth services by camera or phone," stated Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), one of the bill's cosponsors, in a news release.

"The bipartisan Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act moves us one step closer to achieving more affordable, patient-centered health care that our veterans deserve by embracing telehealth services to offer physician care and health treatment beyond the walls of a VA facility," said Sen. Ernst in a separate press statement. "Telehealth care is an innovative and important means to meet the wide-ranging needs of veterans in Iowa and nationwide, including the invisible struggles of mental health care."

More than 12% of veterans received telehealth services in 2014, saving these patients an average $2,000 per year in healthcare-related costs, including travel to a VA facility, according to the Grassley release.

Ernst and Hirono also cosponsored the Senate version of the Tele-Med Act, which would allow licensed physicians to use telemedicine to treat Medicare patients in any state without having to be licensed in that state. That measure would not, however, affect the severe restrictions that Medicare now places on telemedicine coverage.

With the recent growth of telehealth, medical societies have had to confront the issue of practicing across state lines. The American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) oppose the Tele-Med Act. The FSMB has established a reciprocal state licensing compact that at least 11 states have approved so far.

The other Senate cosponsors of the veterans telemedicine bill, besides Grassley, are Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), John Boozman (R-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Tom Udall (D-NM).

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