By Eric Wicklund
September 10, 2020 – A group of Senators is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand telehealth coverage for veterans’ families during the coronavirus pandemic to include telephone calls and text messaging.
In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the group says beneficiaries of the VA’s Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA) are covered for real-time audio-visual telemedicine consults, but many people don’t have easy access to that technology.
“Our constituents, including those who reside in rural areas where internet access may be limited, need access to telehealth services that involve voice communication, especially during a public health emergency,” the letter said. “We appreciate the steps VA has taken in recent years to make telehealth more accessible to veterans and their families, but in order for this access to be meaningful, it must reach constituents through the platforms that work best for them and their providers. As such, we urge VA to take the necessary steps to immediately ensure CHAMPVA beneficiaries are able to access health services through voice communication platforms.”
The letter is signed by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), John Tester (D-MT), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Angus King (I-ME), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jack Reed (D-RI), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Michael Rounds (R-SD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
The Senators note in their letter that in many cases, including Medicare, Medicaid and private health plans, telehealth coverage during the pandemic has been expanded to include different providers, locations and modalities – including audio-only phone calls, text messages, e-mails and fax messages.
This includes the VA, which saw a 1,000 percent increase in traffic on its VA Video Connect mHealth app during the first couple months of the COVID-19 emergency.
While nearly everyone agrees that telehealth coverage will be expanded permanently to meet demand beyond the current state of emergency, there’s plenty of debate over what emergency measures will be kept in place and what will be scrapped.
This includes audio-only phone calls, which supporters say are necessary to boost healthcare access in rural areas. Critics, meanwhile, say the platform isn’t secure, and it doesn’t meet the needs of a valid provider-patient relationship.