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Telemedicine is Safeguarding Arkansas Veterans’ Access to Care

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers the largest integrated health system in the country. There are over nine million veterans enrolled in the VA health care program, and it is vital to meet their needs in the midst of a pandemic.

Arkansas is home to over 222,000 veterans, many of whom rely on the state’s two VA Medical Centers and its network of community-based outpatient clinics for their health care needs. That number grows even higher when factoring in Arkansans who visit VA facilities in neighboring states.

Arkansas veterans who depend on the VA for their care are facing changes brought on by the coronavirus crisis. Urgent and emergency procedures are continuing as scheduled, but the VA has shifted some outpatient care to telehealth, and some elective and non-emergency procedures have been postponed. These measures enable veterans to receive care through minimal contact with staff, which frees up personnel and resources—including personal protective equipment (PPE)—for critical use.

As the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the VA’s funding, I am committed to ensuring the department has all it needs to provide care for coronavirus patients, while minimizing disruption of medical services unrelated to the crisis. We included billions of additional funds to support increased demand for health care services at VA facilities—including the purchase of medical equipment and supplies, testing kits and PPE—in the initial coronavirus response packages.

This infusion of funds has already resulted in benefits in Arkansas. So far, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System (CAHVS) has made employment offers to 27 additional nurses and acquired critical protection supplies including large quantities of hand sanitizer and more than 10,000 N95 masks.

The relief packages also included billions of funds for telehealth to enable the VA to boost its technology infrastructure—including enhanced system bandwidth and support—to manage increased capabilities to deliver healthcare services directly related to coronavirus patients and mitigate the risk of virus transmission.

The VA’s technology infrastructure is crucial to the department’s ability to provide consistent care to veterans during the crisis. Telehealth gives veterans a reliable option to visit with primary care physicians, specialty care teams and mental health professionals from the safety and comfort of their own homes.

Both CAVHS and the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks (VHSO) have expanded telehealth options to ensure continuity of care for veterans during this time when non-emergency visits are unavailable. The data shows an uptick in usage during these challenging times. CAVHS has seen a six percent increase in overall telehealth since February. VHSO had over 450 more completed visits through VA Video Connect over the past month.

Telehealth can even be used to monitor patients diagnosed with coronavirus and those exposed to it. CAVHS is currently utilizing it for these purposes, providing daily monitoring for veterans that fall in these categories. CAVHS is the first in its network to initiate these services and this effort has garnered the interest of officials who oversee the VA’s home telehealth program.

I am pleased the VA is showing it can deftly adapt in a quick manner to provide continuity of services to Arkansas veterans. Our veterans deserve all the benefits they have earned, including the best care in the world.

The sacrifices made by our veterans produced victories for us on the battlefield. We must ensure the VA has all it needs to win this fight for them on the home front.

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