VA’s Secretary Shulkin wants more private care options for veterans as part of reforms

Released days before our Thanksgiving turkey (or steak, or lasagne), the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal (paywalled), stated his aims to increase veteran access to private care without having to rely on the VA to approve or coordinate it. This is in the direction of the recently signed bill with $2.1 bn in funding for the Veterans Choice program that targets veterans living in areas without ready access to VA facilities, or who are told they cannot get an appointment within VA within 30 days.

“The direction I’m taking this is to give veterans more choice in their care and be the decision maker for their care, which I fundamentally believe is a concept that has to be implemented,” Shulkin said. He admitted that opening the VA to private care programs will be gradual. Mentioned in the article were commodity, non-urgent services like podiatry and audiology.

For instance, the Veterans Choice program started in 2014 after wait times exploded in multiple regions, delaying care past 30 days for over half a million veterans for years well into 2015. Veterans died after waiting for care or follow up for months, notably at the Phoenix VA, creating a massive and rightfully political problem. 

Dr. Shulkin’s drive for reform and speed of care is also increasing the pace telehealth expansion with programs such as Anywhere to Anywhere which would allow cross-state consults and care that published their Federal proposed rule last month, and the rollout of VA Video Connect [TTA 9 Aug]. Earlier this year, four companies were awarded a total of over $1 bn to provide Home Telehealth over five years, reviving a fading program and updating it to not only smaller in-home tablets, but also to mobile and laptop devices. As noted in our OnePerspective article on telemental health deployment, the VA has the largest program in the US, dating back to the early 2000s.

While some veterans organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have been critical of moves towards integrating private care, this Editor cannot see where the problem truly is. Healthcare Dive, The Hill 

Can expanding telehealth help VA solve veteran access crisis?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been both one of the largest US users of telehealth in various forms–and widely criticized for practices including veteran patient wait lists for care, a lack of accountability, a scheduling system full of problems, an ancient EHR (VistA), and an inability to meet interoperability and modernization goals set over years. Telehealth is, in fact, one of VA’s bright spots with store-and-forward imaging, clinical video telemedicine and home telehealth.

At the American Telemedicine Association ATA 2016 meeting Monday, Under Secretary for Health and VA Chief Executive Dr. David Shulkin noted that the crisis has pushed VA into other options for achieving the goals set for the end of year: every VA medical center provides same day primary care services and same day mental health services. One area of focus is telemental health. Dr Shulkin announced in his plenary speech the opening of five new Mental Health Telehealth Clinical Resource Centers this summer, located in Charleston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and a consortium of facilities in Boise, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. West Haven, Connecticut is already open as a specialty hub focused on the most severe and complex mental health issues, such as chronic depression and bipolar disorder. Other VA telemedicine initiatives include kiosks and text messaging to help with medication adherence and chronic condition management. (We’ve reported on their partnering with nhssimple to develop ANNIE, a sister of NHS’ Flo in text messaging to encourage patients in their health monitoring, TTA 2 Dec 15.)

VA delivered 2.1 million episodes of telehealth care last year (FY 2015), in 45 specialty areas of care, including 400,000 telemental health visits. They also reduced bed days by 56 percent, reduced readmissions by 32 percent, and decreased total psychiatric admissions by 35 percent, maintaining high user satisfaction scores at 89 percent.

Dr Shulkin also noted that four generations of veterans are served by VA–WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Shield through current Iraq/Afghanistan–and all four have different delivery requirements. He closed with what is, for VA which has been very proud of their ‘home grown’ solutions from the time of Dr Adam Darkins in the early 2000s on, something unusual: “We’re looking to learn, we’re looking to work with all of you who are innovating to help take better care of veterans.” (Next on tap: the award of the next five-year round of home telehealth providers, which is presently down to two Grizzled Pioneers, Medtronic (Cardiocom) and Viterion.) MobihealthnewsVA press release

Veterans Affairs boosts telehealth, HIT in proposed 2016/2017 budgets

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in its proposed 2016 budget released earlier this week, is increasing support for telehealth/mHealth along with programs that use these services–rural health and mental health. Telehealth’s VA budget from FY 2014 increased from $986 million to just below $1.1 billion in the current year. In FY 2016 (beginning 1 Oct), the VA is allocating $1.22 billion of a $56 billion budget, and in 2017 advance appropriations, $1.37 billion–a year-to-year increase of 11 percent and 12 percent respectively .

VA has the largest telehealth program in the US, divided into three main functional areas: (more…)

VA reduced bed days by 59%, hospital admissions by 35% in 2013

Not all is gloom ‘n’ doom at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), rightly excoriated for cooking the books on wait times for admissions, allowing an estimated 40 veterans to die waiting for care at the epicenter of the coverup, a Phoenix VA hospital, its secretary resigning. A consistent bright spot has been its use of telehealth and telemedicine, along with the Department of Defense (DOD), making them the largest US telehealth contractors. Neurosurgeon Adam Darkins, MD, who is their chief consultant for telehealth services, kept a speaking date at Tuesday’s Government Health IT Conference in Washington, DC to present encouraging results.

  • The VA’s FY2013 telehealth program totaled 608,900 patients and 1.8 million telehealth episodes of care. 45 percent of the patient population live in rural areas, receiving care from 151 VA Medical Centers (VAMC) and over 705 Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs)
  • 2009 to 2012 data show showed a 4 percent cost reduction after a year in a telehealth program, versus a one-year spike of 48 percent in costs for those veterans outside telehealth
  • Cost savings are estimated at just under $2,000 per year per patient
  • Over 41,000 patients were enabled to live independently in their homes using telehealth
  • VA also leads in telemental health, with its National Center providing 2,893 video consults to 1,033 patients at 53 sites in 24 states
  • The program is expanding at a rate of 22 percent per year

VA’s telehealth covers six areas: clinical video telehealth, home telehealth, (more…)

Telemedicine in the TIME Swampland

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/blue-blazes.jpg” thumb_width=”175″ /]TIME’s ‘Swampland’ section may be referring to the original siting of Washington, DC on reclaimed swamp land off the Potomac River, but this swampy article ultimately struggles to solid land. You will have to meander through the UVA Center for Telehealth, the Center for Connected Health Policy, WellPoint, the Institute for e-Health Policy and of course Partners Healthcare’s cardiac program [TTA 27 Aug] before addressing the real problem: the desirability of broader telemedicine reimbursement and a consistent policy in US Federal programs such as Medicare and Federally-subsidized Medicaid administered through the states. Currently Medicare reimbursement is restricted to specific rural areas, Native American territories/Indian Health Service, and of course the often-mentioned mess of cross-state physician licensing. However, the Accountable Care Act is not going to be the savior as its implementation is hardly going smoothly. Earlier CMS policies on 30-day same cause readmissions have had far more impact. There is the to-be-expected muddling of telemedicine (virtual consults) and telehealth (monitoring)–and robotics gets a ‘say wot?’ mention. The kicker is the headline and accompanying picture:

“Saving U.S. Health Care With Skype”

Skype, while used in ‘telemental health’ [TTA 11 May], is not HIPAA-compliant for patient privacy.  Were TIME’s famed fact-checkers asleep? 

Hat tip (and thanks) to reader Bob Pyke.

Apps that put you on the couch

Despite the light tone of this Editor’s headline, telepsychiatry and telementalhealth or ‘mood’ apps aren’t frivolous in the least. The US Department of Defense (DOD) National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2) T2 Mood Tracker and BioZen are two smartphone apps for biotherapeutic feedback [TTA 14 Feb]. Virtual consults are also not brand new–but controversial, as some have used Skype which the TeleMental Health Institute in a recent Psychiatric News article has scored on privacy (as in no).  Four new entrants are taking a different approach, with different models and HIPAA-compliant video consults.

  • TalkSession is first establishing itself as an authority for providers via an online forum and digital magazine–then as a booking source for online therapy.
  • Talktala is hosting online chats and forums moderated by therapists, and for more advanced services will charge users a $30/month subscription fee.
  • iCouch allows users to search for therapists, and then via computer or iPhone visit online through the site’s HIPAA-compliant system. Interestingly 30-40 percent of its current client base is international and has 165 therapists worldwide. (International visits are an interesting loophole in practice.)
  • Breakthrough is only for California residents at present, but plans to expand to Texas and other states. Patients again connect with a network of certified mental health professionals and conduct appointments via chat, email, phone or HIPAA-compliant video. Unlike the others, it has gained insurance coverage for its therapists’ services, shows real-time therapist availability and plans to enable on-demand, off-hour services.

Web therapy: 4 startups overcoming mental health taboos with technology (GigaOm)  Hat tip to David E. Albert, M.D. of AliveCor.