Providing Telehealth for the Nation's Veterans

September 20, 2016
By Tony Bardo

Of all of the U.S. government's modernization and reform initiatives, overhauling the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is one of the longest standing and most important undertakings. This has been the case since a post-World War II era, when the Truman administration called for modernization of the department. Despite ongoing efforts, we still have a long way to go to ensure all veterans across the United States have access to high-quality health care.

Although recent efforts to modernize the VA include everything from repairing and maintaining facilities to digitizing patient records, one of the most important priorities is funding for VA Telehealth Services, which uses modern telecommunications technologies to bring health care services to remote locations and offer in-home preventative care and continuous monitoring of patients—no matter where they live. The service remotely connects patients to health centers, offering a capability especially vital for veterans who don’t live near a VA hospital. The solution mitigates their need to travel to distant health centers for even routine checkups.

Though budgets are limited, telehealth should be a priority. There are 22 million veterans nationwide, with almost 25 percent living in rural communities. And 57 percent of these rural veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system.

A Government Accountability Office report issued in March focused on the limited extent of accessible care, finding that accessibility and timeliness of care were problem areas for newly enrolled veterans. VA officials interviewed by GAO investigators reported continued work on technological solutions to address this problem, including efforts that would increase “the use of telehealth and secure messaging to improve the convenience and availability of primary care appointments.”

The issues affect the entirety of the veteran population, especially those living in rural areas. The Office of Rural Health (ORH) states, “Rural veterans experience several barriers in their ability to access care and services in their local community such as provider and specialist shortages, hospital closings due to financial instability, limited broadband coverage (for telehealth services), geographic barriers or distance.”

Rural areas always have lagged cities when it comes to available terrestrial broadband. This is due to the high costs of building out terrestrial network infrastructure in areas of low population density—whether based on fixed or wireless technologies—leaving many rural veterans unreachable by telehealth services. That doesn’t have to be the case. Satellite broadband services are available nationwide and could provide cost-effective delivery of telehealth for veterans, no matter where they live. The latest generations of high-throughput satellite (HTS) services such as HughesNet already provide high-speed Internet access to more than 1 million residential subscribers across the country. Officials should fund programs giving veterans satellite broadband services if they currently lack terrestrial broadband access.

Right now, about 5.5 million rural veteran enrollees have limited telehealth options or face the hassle of long-distance commutes to their closest VA facility for even routine health services. Making policies that subsidize both veterans’ and rurally based VA facilities’ adoption of satellite broadband would result in one of the most cost-effective investments by the department and one of the most impactful in terms of increasing access to care.

Policy makers and the VA cannot afford to bypass this opportunity to bring about much needed change. Our worthy veterans deserve nothing less.

Tony Bardo is assistant vice president of government solutions at Hughes.

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