Inclusion of telemedicine in VA overhaul bill draws praise

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Telemedicine, much to the delight of some health industry observers, is a prominent part of legislation announced this week allocating $16.3 billion to overhaul the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The proposed bill, which sailed through the House on a 420-5 vote on Wednesday, requires that all VA mobile vet centers and mobile medical centers have the capability to provide telemedicine services. The bill also requires an annual report be sent to Congress outlining the use of telemedicine by such centers.

Figures touted last month by VA officials show that home-based telehealth programs help military service members receive better care at lower costs than service members who only receive in-person care. According to Adam Darkins, chief consultant for telehealth services at the VA, in fiscal year 2013, VA-specific telehealth applications grew to more than 608,000 patients at 151 VA medical centers and 705 community-based outpatient clinics resulted in roughly 1.8 million telehealth episodes of care.

The American Telemedicine Association applauded the legislation's inclusion of telemedicine provisions, calling it "a great step toward overall improvement" of care delivery.

"Telemedicine has been proven to lower costs, improve access and quality of healthcare," Gary Capistrant, ATA's senior director of public policy, said in a statement emailed to FierceHealthIT.

Likewise, Health IT Now praised the bill, with Senior Policy Council James Turner saying that both the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense have implemented what amounts to "a one-license, practice-anywhere model" that allows providers to care for patients as necessary.

"They understand the potential to decrease wait times, improve care and decrease cost," Turner said in a statement posted to the group's website. "The VA system is far ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to telemedicine, and has already seen the benefits first hand."

The bill also calls on the VA to fix its scheduling software. Last month, VA CIO Stephen Warren said the department will turn to the private sector to find replacement technology.

To learn more:
- here's the proposed bill (.pdf)
- here are details on the House vote
- check out the statement from Health IT Now's James Turner

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