OnePerspective: VA shows how technology can improve mental health care

Editor’s note: This inaugurates our new series of ‘OnePerspective’ articles. These are written by industry contributors on issues of importance to our Readers and are archived under ‘Perspectives’. For more information on contributing an article to our OnePerspective program, email Editor Donna.

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Gigi-Sorenson-GlobalMed.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]By: Gigi Sorenson

The shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S. is becoming more acute for two reasons: 1) more health professionals are encouraging their patients to seek treatment, and 2) more people now have health insurance due to the Affordable Care Act.  A December 2016 assessment showed that over 106 million Americans live in areas where there are not enough mental health providers to meet the need. Because of this provider shortage, as well as the stigma attached to behavioral health treatment, roughly half of mental illness cases go undiagnosed or unaddressed.

However, telehealth could fill much of this gap, and the beginnings of this trend are already evident. A growing number of psychiatrists and psychologists are using video and audio teleconferencing to treat patients remotely. Patients have access to this “telemental health” either in clinics and medical centers or, in some cases, through their Internet-connected personal devices. Studies of telemental health have found that it is effective for diagnosis and assessment in many care settings, that it improves access and outcomes, that it represents a portable, low-cost option, and that it is well-accepted by patients.

VA Program Sets the Pace

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) began to deploy telemental health in the early 2000s, and the VA now has the largest and most sophisticated such program in the U.S. In 2016, about 700,000 of American’s 22 million veterans used VA telehealth services. In 2013, 80,000 veterans used telemental health services, and over 650,000 veterans took advantage of those services in the previous decade.

The VA system has trained more than 4,000 mental health providers in evidence-based psychotherapies for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions.  It has expanded the use of telemedicine at its 150 medical centers and its 800 outpatient clinics.  It is relying increasingly on telemental health to serve its beneficiaries, partly because nearly half of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan live in rural areas. Mental health professionals are often unavailable in these regions, and it can be difficult for these veterans to travel to metropolitan areas where VA clinics and medical centers are located.

Telemental health can address these issues.

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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